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  • Jaydev Mody speaks about Zia Mody in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

  • Naina Lal Kidwai Speaks About Mira Nair In The Official Podcast Of She Walks, She Leads

  • Karan Johar Speaks About Kareena Kapoor Khan In The Official Podcast Of She Walks, She Leads

  • Akash Ambani speaks about Nita Ambani in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

  • Indra Nooyi speaks about her Journey in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

  • Shiva Kumar speaks about Indra Nooyi in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

  • Ajay Banga speaks about Indra Nooyi in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

  • Krishna Kumar speaks about Indra Nooyi in the official podcast of She Walks, She Leads.

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    Gunjan Jain

    Gunjan Jain

  • shewalkssheleads
    Gunjan Jain

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  • The Story: She Walks, She Leads

  • Shah Rukh Khan's speech at She Walks, She Leads Book Launch

  • Nita Ambani's Speech at the She Walks, She Leads Mumbai Book Launch

  • Dr. Swati Piramal's book reading of She Walks, She Leads

  • She Walks, She Leads Bangalore Chapter | Gunjan Jain

  • Official Trailer of She Walks, She Leads by Author Gunjan Jain

  • Nita Ambani

    Keeping pace with Nita Ambani is close to impossible. But if you ask her, it is just this frenzy and the love for making a difference through her work that keeps her going. The first lady of corporate India dons many, many hats; most of her ventures have been sensational hits. But ask her how, she, measures success and she will tell you that it is through seeing her children grow into humble and compassionate individuals.

    GJ: What makes you most proud as a mother?

    NA: When Akash and Isha joined Brown and Yale, they stayed in a dorm. They shared little rooms. Isha was in a bunk-bed. They did everything that any other child would do there including common toilets and bathrooms, eating at the canteens and not once have they said that we would want to do anything differently. I think, as a mother, I thought that was big. And also, their friends that came back– Isha was elected president of the Asian Society – not many of their friends even knew their background in India. Then Isha took up a job after she graduated from Yale at McKinsey. Every Monday morning there was a flight she had to take and she would wake up at 3.30am in -14 or -15 degrees and take a flight to Milwaukee which was even colder and more frozen and work there and come back. I don’t think she even complained once and, I think, she just wanted to contribute and learn as much as she could. So I think, most importantly, all three of them are highly compassionate human beings. They are kind, they value people, respect people and that makes me very proud.

    GJ: You have spoke about a lot middle class values… can you tell us a little bit more about the values that you hold dear to yourself and that you have tried to inculcate in your kids?

    NA: First and foremost respect for elders – that is something that is non-negotiable. When you grow up in a middle-class family where we were 11 of us cousins in the same house with uncles and aunts and you imbibe the culture of being non-judgmental, of being supportive, of sharing and of loving and care. I think all those are so important to share all that you have is to be compassionate and understanding. You live so closely you understand each other and are compassionate about what the other person is thinking or feeling. We didn’t have luxuries in life but we had adequate comforts. Sometimes, those also were difficult. But I think, there was this unconditional acceptance which is a wonderful place to be in.

    GJ: It said that children are the greatest teachers for any parent. Any lessons that you must have learnt from them that’s enhanced your own personal journey.

    NA: Oh, the lessons you learn the most when you have three young kids is patience. People say you look so calm and you are juggling so many things – I say when you have three kids in three years, your patience kind of… Besides that, for me, spirituality and religion mean a lot. I just count my blessings for being blessed, for being a mother, and that’s what having these three has meant to me because very early in my marriage I was told that I couldn’t have children and for me, the most emotional part is that you count your blessings everyday because God has given you a chance to be a mother.

    GJ: Every mother has some very significant dreams for their children. Are there dreams that you have for your children that you would like to share?

    NA: It’s very important that we have raised our children with the values we thought are important in life and in whatever they do, we need to know that they are happy. The purpose of all of us doing so many things is that we create happiness for ourselves and happiness for others. If they can do that and give their earnest best and have a sincerity of purpose in all they do, I will be happy. And do it with honesty and as my father-in-law said there is a very fine line between being clever and crooked and never cross the line. I always told my children that.

    GJ: You have successfully handled so many projects while being a hands-on mother. What has given you immense satisfaction throughout your journey?

    NA: I don’t know about projects but I think, if I have to say what gives me maximum happiness, I would say being a mother to my children. I think that’s paramount to me. There is nothing more worthwhile in my life and there’ll never be! So, I guess raising my three marvellous children has given me the maximum happiness and the maximum joy. I think, after that, its education. I was a teacher when I was 21 and just the feeling of going to a school and entering a classroom and seeing a blackboard and young eyes seeking knowledge – to see the innocence, to see them enjoy learning – this is something that drives me. I think that is something I am very passionate about.

    GJ: You spoke about education being so important to you and Dhirubhai Ambani International School was one of the first big projects you took up on this front. What propelled you to start the school?

    NA: You are taking me back to history now... I think 30 or 31 years ago when the proposal came for Mukesh from my father-in-law and I had gone to meet him in his office completely overwhelmed... you know, a young girl of 20 or 21 is called by Dhirubhai Ambani to meet him! I was wondering what could it be and when I realised it was for his son, I just said one thing – that I would like to continue working and that’s what I did. I did what I wanted to do and as a teacher, I taught for many years under my maiden name. Not many people knew I was Mukesh’s wife. Except the Principal, no one knew.

    That was the time I always wanted to see how I could be involved in transforming children’s lives through education because I think it’s a key and after that, when the first polyester plant was being put up at Patalganga, Mukesh gave me an opportunity to put up a school for the employees’ children. That was the first school that I put up in Jamnagar and then I realised soon afterwards that in a city like Mumbai, most parents send their children for international education abroad. Then I thought why not set up an international school here and now that I have had enough experience in putting up schools, why don’t I do this. When I spoke to Mukesh’s father and Mukesh, they said if that’s what you want to do and you are committed and have the confidence then why don’t you do it! It will take sometime to succeed because it is the first time an international school is coming up and things like that. But, that’s how my story with Dhirubhai Ambani School started 12 years ago. Just recently we completed 11 yearsof the school. That’s when a very close friend of the family came and told me you have made a very good school but it won’t get many children because it is so far away –who will come to Bandra and Kurla? It was actually in the midst of nowhere. By God’s grace,the school has received accolades for the education it imparts to children who come there.

    GJ: You spoke about speaking with Mr Dhirubhai Ambani about the school when you wanted to start it… Can you further share some of your remembrances of your father-in-law and what are the memories that you carry?

    NA: The first memories I have of papa is the phonecall that I had at home. I was probably 20 at that time. The caller identified himself as Dhrubhai Ambani and I used to read about the changes he made in the stock and share market and I thought why would Dhirubhai Ambani call me? And so I put down the phone thinking it was a prank call. Again the phone rings and again I think it’s a prank call and I put it down. The third time it rings and my father answers the call and he says that it is actually Dhirubhai Ambani and he wants to talk to you. That was my first experience of papa where it didn’t matter… there was no operator or anybody. He just picked up the phone and called me directly. It shows immense humility to do so and to have that connection with people.

    GJ: You have gone through so many transitions and have had a magnificent evolution from getting married to the leading business family, to becoming a mother, to getting into education, philanthropy. You became the first lady of corporate India and today, you are a formidable brand in your own right globally. How does it make you feel?

    NA: You don’t feel any different because you always remain the person you are and this is true for any person. So, I don’t think as a person, I feel any differently. I think, all that just gives me more strength to take on more things, especially, for social impact. I think, I get extremely motivou have expressed successful leadership across all projects… what keeps you so motivated to take up new challenges and stay so focused across?

    NA: I think first and foremost, I love what I do and if it impacts and changes peoples’ lives and thinking, I feel it is worth the time. So, when football came to me, I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t know a thing about cricket and I jumped into it and now, it’s in my DNA. Same with football! But I just thought India deserves to have one more sport. Not just one, many more sports. We need to be a sporting nation. We are over 1.25 billion people and our young children should be given a chance to play different sports. And if I can, for football, kind of get little kids – lakhsand millions – to take up sports, kicking a football, probably think of that as a profession, then I think I have done my job well.

    GJ: That brings me to your journey at the IPL… IPL saw your leadership come forth, from being a self-confessed novice to taking Mumbai Indians to number one position through successive seasons. What training did you go through personally to lead the team?

    NA: I just jumped into it not knowing what I was doing. We were at the bottom of the table for the first two years. When Mukesh bought the team, I was completely against it. I said we had enough on our plate. I had just put up my school; we were working on the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City for Infocom. There was so much happening – Jamnagar was getting stabilised. So I was like why do you need one more thing now? The first two years we didn’t do well. And I said let me once go and see what’s happening and I realised we need to bond as a team. For one year, before the season started, this was in 2009 – I think every day I used to watch cricket for two hours, only to understand the game. I didn’t know a thing! The only games I went to watch when I was young with my mother were the test matches when Pataudi or someone else would bat. So right from learning the nuances of different kinds of bowling to what has to be appreciated, I learnt on the job. Then, I started interacting with the team – sitting and talking to them - what makes them tick. We had these long conversations with Sachin and Harbhajan in the team. We bonded as a team and we reached the finals. For me, I cherished that journey. I cherish every moment that I learnt so much.

    GJ: If you could tell us a little more about the learning you took from that experience so that we can learn from it.

    NA: You know, sport is such a leveller. I think it gives our youth a chance to channelize their energy in a very positive way. It also teaches you how to win and lose gracefully. These are the lessons that are so important in life where everything is not about winning. And, I think the most important, it teaches you – as Sachin says –to respect the team, to respect individuals. Because no one person can make anybody win. It is always the team. So I have realised it’s so important to work well with the team. It’s not one person who can deliver anything. When you put up a team that works smoothly together and everybody is so motivated to win one magical goal that everything happens.

    If I think about it now, I became part of the team. Day before yesterday I was at a dinner for Rohit and Sachin and Anjali were there and when you have cricket boys, they only talk cricket. So Anjali was like they will only talk cricket but you are so comfortable because you sit with them and talk cricket yourself. I said absolutely… I feel so much at ease. So I just thought that I became one of the team members. And we had this wonderful bonding camp where they shared experiences about what made them great cricketers. Again, there was no pressure to win. I just went in and said that enjoy every moment on the field and give it your best. And, if you give your best, I am going to be damn very happy and I think that’s what they did.

    GJ: How different is it to lead a team, than lead a school, than lead a hospital – because you succeeded in all three.

    NA: One is I think believing in every team member and empowering them. It is so important to empower your people and tell them to take decisions and tell them I am there backing you. I backed each of my people. It’s all right if you make mistakes. For me, getting all my teachers and giving them the confidence that they can go out and give their best and I am there backing them – this is something I enjoy. I enjoy a very participative way of working. I love nurturing.

    GJ: We spoke about spirituality and hence, I want to ask you about your spiritual beliefs and practices that you hold dear and how have they helped you overcome the difficulties that you may have experienced?

    NA: Something that Mukesh and I do everyday together is to pray. We don’t leave the house without praying. That’s something that my children do in their own way. I think belief in someone who is there looking after all of us and eventually, destiny pays a large role. All of us as human beings can do that much and then there are some things you have to leave to the Almighty. That’s where my belief comes from. Humanly I can do that much and beyond that, there is a supreme human being looking after all of us.

    GJ: You spoke of Mr Ambani and that leads me to ask you… Mukesh Ambani is well-known for the business side but very little is known about him as a person. If you can tell us about the values he holds dear and how has he evolved since you first met him so many decades ago?

    NA: Mukesh is a quiet person; he is a visionary... he thinks of all these grand ideas. When we talk, he is extremely emotional and he has actually raised the kids hands-on. So, there was a time when I used to be working late but he used to be home, looking after the kids. He has been an equal partner in my marriage so that he has given me the impetus and the roots that I have to go ahead and achieve what I want to. I don’t know,I have just seen the world of him! We are married for 30 years now and I get inspired every time I am with him. He has the floodlights in life. He talks about the big things, about the change, about taking people together… but, he is shy and a little bit of an introvert. He loves the family time. He is a fabulous son. I think all mothers and fathers want a son like him. He is a great friend to have. For me, it’s our friendship, our partnership together. We are friends more than anything else. We just enjoy being together. For the kids, at one time, he was a father and now, he has become their friend. They also look up to him. All three of them hero-worship their father. Mother, they kind of take for granted, but father, they absolutely adore.

    GJ: Your mantra for a successful marriage.

    NA: There is no single mantra (laughs)! I don’t have a mantra but there is something that I continue doing is that I would wait up for him for dinner, and he would wait for me. When we are in Bombay, we don’t have dinner without each other. That gives us time to bond and share our day. I think that meal times, the togetherness is something that… he still takes me for drives in the night, so, both of us spend twice a week probably going out on this drive, listening to good music and coming back. We bond over work. There’s so much to make a change, to make a social impact, there’s so much we can talk about our work – how we can make a change, what is good for India, what is good for people – those are things that are dear to us and I have three children!

    GJ: How does it feel to be Mrs Mukesh Ambani?

    NA: I don’t think I can be anything else besides being his wife. I was married when I was 21. All that I have experienced and all that I have is because I am Mukesh’s wife. I don’t think I know about anything else than being Mukesh's wife.

    GJ: Being the first corporate lady of India and from such a successful business family gives you immense power. However, what does power mean to you?

    NA: To make the change, to empower people. I think power cannot be brokered. Power is something that you lend to people and motivate them. The biggest thing is to empower people and give it away.

    GJ: The amazing number of friends you have across fields and across countries has always been a talking point in social circles. What’s your secret to making and nurturing friendships the way you do? What makes you so good with relationships?

    NA: Some of my friends go back to schooldays. So my best friend lives in the US and California – she is a dentist and we have been school friends from the time we were six years old. Dr Firoza Parikh has been a godmother to my children and is my soul sister. I have Swati Piramal who I have known since I was very young. I think, if you are true to yourself, and you are true to your friends and you know you are unconditional and stand by them –whenand what it doesn’t matter – friendships stay.

    GJ: A lot of young adults there want to emulate you. What would your message be to them?

    NA: All I would say is that there is no substitute to hard work. Make your best effort, chase excellence every day; don’t worry about the results, they will follow you.ated to do more things and I just wished there were 27 hours in a day.

    GJ: How do you juggle so many roles and what’s a typical day like in Nita Ambani’s life?

    NA: Some days back when I was at the Mumbai match at Navi Mumbai, Ranbir (Kapoor) asked me the same question and I told him, everyday is different and it depends on a lot of things. To give you an example, that day, I started off by going to school for 2-3 hours after which I came to the hospital for the next 4-5 hours and from there, I went to New Bombay for the football league. So, right from education to healthcare to sports– everything was completed in a day and that issomething I relish so much because that’s an opportunity to make a change, if I can, in various avenues.

    GJ: Reliance University is your next big project. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

    NA:It is still in the planning stage but this is something I want to do –a school for journalism, a school for theatre, a school for performing arts and also do technical, engineering and medical. I think children need to be given a choice; there can’t be compartments –thatyou have to either choose this or that. There needs to be an all-round development in children. So hopefully, in a few years from now, that dream will take shape.

    GJ: How do you feel after the inauguration and successful running of the Reliance Foundation Hospital?

    NA: As it is for all start-ups, it is the busiest time for us. All of us want to make doubly sure that things work smoothly for all the people who come here. So, it’s a very busy time at the hospital and most of us are sleeping for 2-3 hours at night.

    GJ: You have expressed successful leadership across all projects… what keeps you so motivated to take up new challenges and stay so focused across?

    NA: I think first and foremost, I love what I do and if it impacts and changes peoples’ lives and thinking, I feel it is worth the time. So, when football came to me, I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t know a thing about cricket and I jumped into it and now, it’s in my DNA. Same with football! But I just thought India deserves to have one more sport. Not just one, many more sports. We need to be a sporting nation. We are over 1.25 billion people and our young children should be given a chance to play different sports. And if I can, for football, kind of get little kids – lakhsand millions – to take up sports, kicking a football, probably think of that as a profession, then I think I have done my job well.

    GJ: That brings me to your journey at the IPL… IPL saw your leadership come forth, from being a self-confessed novice to taking Mumbai Indians to number one position through successive seasons. What training did you go through personally to lead the team?

    NA: I just jumped into it not knowing what I was doing. We were at the bottom of the table for the first two years. When Mukesh bought the team, I was completely against it. I said we had enough on our plate. I had just put up my school; we were working on the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City for Infocom. There was so much happening – Jamnagar was getting stabilised. So I was like why do you need one more thing now? The first two years we didn’t do well. And I said let me once go and see what’s happening and I realised we need to bond as a team. For one year, before the season started, this was in 2009 – I think every day I used to watch cricket for two hours, only to understand the game. I didn’t know a thing! The only games I went to watch when I was young with my mother were the test matches when Pataudi or someone else would bat. So right from learning the nuances of different kinds of bowling to what has to be appreciated, I learnt on the job. Then, I started interacting with the team – sitting and talking to them - what makes them tick. We had these long conversations with Sachin and Harbhajan in the team. We bonded as a team and we reached the finals. For me, I cherished that journey. I cherish every moment that I learnt so much.

    GJ: If you could tell us a little more about the learning you took from that experience so that we can learn from it.

    NA: You know, sport is such a leveller. I think it gives our youth a chance to channelize their energy in a very positive way. It also teaches you how to win and lose gracefully. These are the lessons that are so important in life where everything is not about winning. And, I think the most important, it teaches you – as Sachin says –to respect the team, to respect individuals. Because no one person can make anybody win. It is always the team. So I have realised it’s so important to work well with the team. It’s not one person who can deliver anything. When you put up a team that works smoothly together and everybody is so motivated to win one magical goal that everything happens.

    If I think about it now, I became part of the team. Day before yesterday I was at a dinner for Rohit and Sachin and Anjali were there and when you have cricket boys, they only talk cricket. So Anjali was like they will only talk cricket but you are so comfortable because you sit with them and talk cricket yourself. I said absolutely… I feel so much at ease. So I just thought that I became one of the team members. And we had this wonderful bonding camp where they shared experiences about what made them great cricketers. Again, there was no pressure to win. I just went in and said that enjoy every moment on the field and give it your best. And, if you give your best, I am going to be damn very happy and I think that’s what they did.

    GJ: How different is it to lead a team, than lead a school, than lead a hospital – because you succeeded in all three.

    NA: One is I think believing in every team member and empowering them. It is so important to empower your people and tell them to take decisions and tell them I am there backing you. I backed each of my people. It’s all right if you make mistakes. For me, getting all my teachers and giving them the confidence that they can go out and give their best and I am there backing them – this is something I enjoy. I enjoy a very participative way of working. I love nurturing.

    GJ: We spoke about spirituality and hence, I want to ask you about your spiritual beliefs and practices that you hold dear and how have they helped you overcome the difficulties that you may have experienced?

    NA: Something that Mukesh and I do everyday together is to pray. We don’t leave the house without praying. That’s something that my children do in their own way. I think belief in someone who is there looking after all of us and eventually, destiny pays a large role. All of us as human beings can do that much and then there are some things you have to leave to the Almighty. That’s where my belief comes from. Humanly I can do that much and beyond that, there is a supreme human being looking after all of us.

    GJ: You spoke of Mr Ambani and that leads me to ask you… Mukesh Ambani is well-known for the business side but very little is known about him as a person. If you can tell us about the values he holds dear and how has he evolved since you first met him so many decades ago?

    NA: Mukesh is a quiet person; he is a visionary... he thinks of all these grand ideas. When we talk, he is extremely emotional and he has actually raised the kids hands-on. So, there was a time when I used to be working late but he used to be home, looking after the kids. He has been an equal partner in my marriage so that he has given me the impetus and the roots that I have to go ahead and achieve what I want to. I don’t know,I have just seen the world of him! We are married for 30 years now and I get inspired every time I am with him. He has the floodlights in life. He talks about the big things, about the change, about taking people together… but, he is shy and a little bit of an introvert. He loves the family time. He is a fabulous son. I think all mothers and fathers want a son like him. He is a great friend to have. For me, it’s our friendship, our partnership together. We are friends more than anything else. We just enjoy being together. For the kids, at one time, he was a father and now, he has become their friend. They also look up to him. All three of them hero-worship their father. Mother, they kind of take for granted, but father, they absolutely adore.

    GJ: Your mantra for a successful marriage.

    NA: There is no single mantra (laughs)! I don’t have a mantra but there is something that I continue doing is that I would wait up for him for dinner, and he would wait for me. When we are in Bombay, we don’t have dinner without each other. That gives us time to bond and share our day. I think that meal times, the togetherness is something that… he still takes me for drives in the night, so, both of us spend twice a week probably going out on this drive, listening to good music and coming back. We bond over work. There’s so much to make a change, to make a social impact, there’s so much we can talk about our work – how we can make a change, what is good for India, what is good for people – those are things that are dear to us and I have three children!

    GJ: How does it feel to be Mrs Mukesh Ambani?

    NA: I don’t think I can be anything else besides being his wife. I was married when I was 21. All that I have experienced and all that I have is because I am Mukesh’s wife. I don’t think I know about anything else than being Mukesh's wife.

    GJ: Being the first corporate lady of India and from such a successful business family gives you immense power. However, what does power mean to you?

    NA: To make the change, to empower people. I think power cannot be brokered. Power is something that you lend to people and motivate them. The biggest thing is to empower people and give it away.

    GJ: The amazing number of friends you have across fields and across countries has always been a talking point in social circles. What’s your secret to making and nurturing friendships the way you do? What makes you so good with relationships?

    NA: Some of my friends go back to schooldays. So my best friend lives in the US and California – she is a dentist and we have been school friends from the time we were six years old. Dr Firoza Parikh has been a godmother to my children and is my soul sister. I have Swati Piramal who I have known since I was very young. I think, if you are true to yourself, and you are true to your friends and you know you are unconditional and stand by them –whenand what it doesn’t matter – friendships stay.

    GJ: A lot of young adults there want to emulate you. What would your message be to them?

    NA: All I would say is that there is no substitute to hard work. Make your best effort, chase excellence every day; don't worry about the results, they will follow you.

    Nita Ambani

  • Indra Nooyi

    She is the Chairperson and CEO of the second largest food and beverage business in the world, and a naturalised American, but her innate Indianness and the warmth that comes so naturally to those growing up in a large, bustling family in India is, unmistakably, the first thing one notices about Indra Nooyi. A phenomenal success journey that saw her take over the corner office at PepsiCo in a matter of fifteen years, here she talks about her love for her work, and why the view from the top is as perilous as it is breathtaking.   

    GJ: When you look back at your childhood, what were you like as a young girl?

    IN: I was a happy-go-lucky, athletic young girl. I played cricket and volleyball, climbed trees, participated in every debating competition possible and was always pushing myself to do things that were seemingly impossible to do. I had lots of people to mentor me—in expected and unexpected ways—and a wonderfully close family, with a great brother and sister. Family support made a huge difference to me because I grew up feeling very secure, knowing that I had parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and a big group of cousins, and that we were not wealthy, but we were full of love.

    GJ: So would you say that your Indian heritage and DNA have influenced your success and working style? 

    IN: I grew up in an environment that emphasized hard word and the fact that if you promise to do something, you never let anyone down. The value of hard work is something that was drilled into me from the time I was born. Even today, I push myself to work extremely hard.

    Growing up in India, you are surrounded by warmth, big families, lots of people and a society that embraces you. So in many ways, I have brought that with me to PepsiCo; I view it as my big family. I don’t care what the size of it is, it is my family and I have a deep emotional commitment to people here, much like we all do towards our families. In a way, the warmth of Indian families, the all-encompassing way we embrace second, third, fourth, fifth cousins, is something I have carried with me.

    GJ: Before your stellar career at PepsiCo, you worked at British Textile Company, Tootal, Johnson & Johnson, Boston Consulting Group, Motorola, and eventually Brown Boveri. What were the most important and formative lessons you learnt in that phase of your career?

    IN: In India, Tootal’s was called Mettur Beardsell. What I did at every job was that I worked extremely hard. And I was always a student. I learned everything about the industry, about the job, and I didn’t care what the job was, I just wanted to learn and contribute. The biggest benefit of being in different industries, having different experiences and working in all parts of the world is that you get a very broad perspective of business. You don’t have a narrow view of one industry or one set of issues. I learned everything from technology to heavy engineering to banks and everything. It gave me a very broad perspective, which I brought to my job with PepsiCo. This is why I was able to do the job very well. 

    GJ: In your professional shift from India to the US, did you have to make any adjustments or changes to your own working style?

    IN: I had to make a lot of changes, and I do that even now—the way I dressed, spoke and carried myself; I had to learn to be more clear, and write in a much more logical and simple way. The most important thing when you come to a foreign country and decide to participate in mainstream business is that you can preserve your individuality, even as you embrace the local culture. And I balance that very carefully. I make sure to keep the elements of my local culture, but at the end of the day, I want to be a very good executive in PepsiCo or any other company that I was previously a part of. 

    Coming to work was not just about putting my background and individuality on display; it was more about getting the job done. I focused on questions such as how do I position myself as a better executive, get people to pay attention to what I am saying and not how I look or what I am wearing. I really worked hard at making sure that I was a very good executive who was taken seriously for what she was saying.

    GJ: Of course, your journey has had its shares of challenges and triumphs, and you have had to make thousands of decisions. At PepsiCo, would you say that there have been significant decision you have made and lessons you have learnt?

    IN: If we don’t have challenges along with the triumphs, we will never learn. Because when you are in such a big, iconic company, and do anything with it as a senior executive, the whole company is looking at you and everyone of any relevance in the world is looking at you; you are always in some sort of a fish bowl.

    Over the years, I have had many challenges. Over time, you develop the courage of conviction, build the ability to dig into the details, and simply deliver on what you said you would deliver. That has been my rule over the past twenty years, at PepsiCo or any other job. 

    The biggest decision that I have made during my time at PepsiCo was that even when other very attractive offers came to me from other companies, I was so committed to this company that I said an absolute ‘no’ to those offers. Whatever the problems might have been at that time at PepsiCo, I stayed because I feel that when you are a very senior executive in a company, you are responsible for solving problems. 

    So, I feel like PepsiCo is my company. I have an incredible sense of ownership and have made a very firm decision to stay here. I think it is the best thing I did because besides the fact that being the CEO of an iconic company is fulfilling, transformative and spectacular, I simply love my time here.

    GJ: How has your philosophy of ‘performance with purpose’ shaped the company so far?

    IN: It has given the company a soul and depth, and now our employees connect with the company even better. Because they now believe that we don’t just do business, we do it in a very conscious way. Because they know that the way in which we make money is different, and is more than just giving away money for charitable causes. We are conducting business in a much more responsible manner. We are working to transform our portfolio, looking to be even more environmentally conscious, and we want to treat our people very well. So when people within the company see all of this, they are proud to be a part of it and talk about it. 

    Most importantly, I tell all my people that if there is something you don’t like about the company, go ahead and change it. When employees know that their company is doing business the right way, making money the right way, and operating with integrity and ethics, it makes us a better company and all the people better citizens within their own communities, too. 

    GJ: What would you say is the important facet of your time at PepsiCo?

    IN: I came in as the head of corporate strategy and went on to restructure PepsiCo. Then I became CFO, President and CFO; after which I was CEO and finally, chairman and CEO, all within a period of fifteen years. So, it has been a very fulfilling journey. I would say the biggest thing about PepsiCo is that as long you perform well, make meaningful contributions to the company, and put the firm before yourself, they do everything possible to move you ahead. 

    GJ: Do you consider yourself an agent of change? If yes, why?

    IN: Absolutely. In today’s volatile world, if you are not an agent of change, you should not be a leader. The world is not standing still, something is changing every day and as a leader, you have to make sure you always ensure the growth of the company in spite of all the volatility. The only way to stay one step ahead is to be an agent of change. 

    GJ: You have said that leadership is hard but good leadership is even harder, and if you get people to follow you to the end of the earth, you are a great leader. What would your advice be to aspiring leaders?

    IN: Nobody is going to push you; you have to push yourself. It is like climbing Mount Everest: once you reach the summit, staying there is harder than the journey that brought you there. The view is fantastic, but there are other people too who are looking to reach that summit. You are being hit by the winds, it’s very cold and the platform is really very small. Being a leader is very much like that. Once you get to the top, too many people are looking at you, there are too many critics and very few supporters, and you have a lot to get done.

    Aspiring leaders have to raise the bar for themselves all the time. They have to embrace learning and be a student all their lives. You have to listen a lot, get out of your office, reach people–your employees, partners–and have as much emotional IQ as intelligence. Because nothing can be done only by a CEO; people help make everything happen. So the important questions are: how will you work with people, motivate them, encourage them, cope with them, get them to execute on your tender and stay one step ahead of everybody else? It is really tough.

    GJ: Your story is one of dedication. Have you, over the years, stayed inspired by a particular vision, or ambition?

    IN: I will be very honest with you. I never started off by saying that I am going to be a CEO. I just wanted to do a great job, whatever I was doing. So I had no personal vision or ambition that got me here.

    Once you become CEO, though, you have to decide what kind of company you want to build because other people are not going to tell you what to do. You have to decide what to do. So I had to ask myself that question and I think ‘performance with purpose’ was born then. Once we articulated it, with all the details, the challenge was to execute it. Because the first thing is to set out goals and metrics, and the second is to get everybody aligned with them. Setting up ‘performance with purpose’ was difficult.

    I think what helped was that when I articulated the vision, I expected resistance but what amazed me is people loved it because they said it touched something inside their hearts. So it wasn’t an intellectual goal as much as it was an emotional goal for all of them. They found that it connected them to the company, connected them to their families and society, because now they could talk about this company as part of their identity. And so that was the vision I had for the company. 

    GJ: What would you say are the traits you possess that have helped you shatter the glass ceiling? Are these characteristics that you can trace back to your childhood?

    IN: I always had a constant desire and curiosity to learn; to re-conceptualize situations and not be happy with the status quo; and look for the next best thing to do. I don’t look upon my job as a job. I have an incredible sense of ownership and look at it as a calling. And all of that has helped me professionally. 

    If you approach your job as just another job, it will be difficult and terrible. Every morning, I approach my work as an opportunity to change the world. I ask myself: what can I do to make the world a better place, and the company a better one? What can I do to help make this world better for people? My way of thinking is different, and I motivate myself to push and never give up. You have to stay motivated. The worst thing is to be motivated for a few days and then dump it; it does not work that way. 

    GJ: Have there been key decisions you have made, in your personal and professional lives, that have got you to where you are now?

    IN: In my profession, I have taken on very difficult problems and been courageous in proposing the right solutions, which have not necessarily been the popular solutions. This means that people know that if something comes from me and my office, I have studied it, analyzed it and the conclusion I have reached may not be politically correct but is the right one for the company. 

    Personally, I think my decision to be a wife and a mother, while also being a good daughter and daughter-in-law, has been very difficult. There are only so many hours in a day, and juggling all of these roles was very hard. Maybe I have not done as well as someone who was focused on them may have. I have tried to be a mom when I could, a wife when I could, and so on. I wish I had seventy-two hours in a day, and not twenty-four.
    GJ: How important is the support of the family to achieve as much as you have?

    IN: If you want to have a family, their support is crucial. There are those who will say, I don’t want to have a family and am just going to be single. I am a very family-oriented person and there was no way that I was not going to have one, and have kids. My husband has been phenomenal; I don’t think I could have done it without him. 

    GJ: You once said that your mother was a study in contrast. She promised to get you married by eighteen, but deep down, she has valued your growth. How has your mother influenced and mentored you to be the person you are?

    IN: Particularly for women, mothers are a big factor in their lives. If my mother had truly decided that she did not want me to go ahead at all, she could have put her foot down and kept me home. On the one hand, she said she would get me married off at eighteen but on the other hand, she let me go to Kolkata to study. When I wanted to move to the US, and my dad was fine with it, she, too, supported me, at every step of the way.

    She is a brilliant lady who never got a chance to go to college and so, in many ways, I think she has lived her life vicariously through her children. And she has been there for us, supporting us whenever we needed her. If we had a headache, the first person we called was mom. She was always there with a supportive word, and has been the biggest force in my life. 

    GJ: What has kept you inspired over the years?

    IN: A sense of self-motivation. Nobody can do it for you; if you can't motivate yourself, it is never going to work. Again, as I said earlier, from the time I was a kid, somebody was always telling me to work hard and not let anybody down. So, in many ways, I cannot say that I have got anything on the off chance. I decided that I wanted to do well, and I didn't care how far I got. I just wanted to do a good job.

    GJ: Is there something about yourself that you have had to work on, through the years?

    IN: There have been many things. In the early years, I had to work on how I communicated, how I carried myself, how I related to people and how I listened. I had to unlearn and re-learn, listen to other people's opinions because we cannot always have all the answers. 

    I have had to learn how to bring the organization along with me. Just because I have an idea and I got it before anybody else, does not mean everybody else got it. So I have had to learn to coach, to develop, to mentor. 

    I am learning patience; not tolerance, but patience. I am trying not to act like I am the smartest person on the rope, because I may be intellectually smart, but a lot of people are street smart and that is as important. So I am learning how to work and absorb from them. Believe me, I am a student every day that I come to work.

    GJ: Mentorship is an important topic that you often speak about. Who have your mentors been?

    IN: All through my life, I have had the most unbelievable mentors, from when I was a kid in school to people at work in India. When I came to the US, I would say that in every part of my life, everybody I worked for or with has, in some way or the other, seen something in me and participated in pushing me forward. 

    Early on, I didn’t see anything in myself. I just thought of myself as yet another Indian who is smart. But I cannot even count the number of people who, when I was in Holy Angels Convent, Madras Christian College, IIM Kolkata, and then working, reached out, gave me ideas, suggestions, tips on how to do things better and constantly reminded me to aim for bigger things because I was meant for bigger things.

    I could not possible name everybody but there are so many people who, even today, if they see something that is not going right, will call me and give me a heads-up. I am grateful to all of these people because they don’t expect anything in return. Each one of them put themselves out there to coach me, mentor me, help me develop and give me advice.

    If someone gave me useful tips or suggestions and I ignored it or did not listen with respect, they would not do it again. I feel very strongly that anybody who takes the pain to come up with a suggestion or idea for you is worth listening to. And so every one of the people that I consider as mentors–there have been many over the years–I gave and give them  time and attention. Most importantly, I take to heart the suggestions they give me. If I cannot implement or follow through on something, I would always let them know why I cannot. 

    GJ: How important would you say it is for women to break the glass ceiling, to head multi-national companies, or become successful entrepreneurs or businesswomen? How do we get there?

    IN: It is glass because we can see through it and it can be broken. The glass ceiling is not going to break by itself. I do think that the glass ceiling and all of those limitations were from a couple of decades ago. Many of us have already walked the trail and I think the time has come for women to commit and rise up to big positions. I don’t think companies have a choice.

    In many ways, I think that if a company does not attract, retain and develop women employees, it cannot be successful because women are getting most of the degrees today, college, advanced and professional. So the next two decades, especially, are decades of women. The question that we all have to answer for ourselves is: are we willing to put in what it takes to move ahead? Our company is willing to put in the support systems to allow women to keep a job and a family, and balance all of it. 

    GJ: What would your advice be to young Indian women who aspire to reach where you are today?

    IN: Do not start off by saying that you want to be a CEO; if you do that, you will be disappointed by the tricks and turns of your life. If you do your current job phenomenally well, people will automatically take you for your next job and the next one. People, too often, are focused on the destination and not the path to get to the destination. My strong suggestion would be to focus on the job you have, do a great job, and learn the next one while you are in the current role. Learn how your present job links to the next one. Learn how you can do your current job even better, and put your company before yourself. Think about what you are doing and how it is going to impact the organization you are a part of. If you get selfish, just do what you have to, and get out, then you will get what you deserve.

    GJ: How would you describe your vision for the future?

    IN: When I leave PepsiCo, I want to leave a company that people consider amazing. I want people to think of PepsiCo as a defining corporation. That’s one hope and dream that I have. Whatever life after PepsiCo will be, I have no idea, but whenever I decide to something else, I want to make a difference. I am a global citizen. I am privileged to live here in the United States, privileged to be a part of this society, but I am a global citizen and I want to make a difference in a world that has so many problems.

    Indra Nooyi

  • Late Parmeshwar Godrej

    When one is preparing to meet one of the most powerful women in the country – massively influential, a devout philanthropist, visionary and the ultimate style icon – one prepares for many things. But nothing quite readies you for the sheer humility that Parmeshwar Godrej carries about her. She has dedicated most of her life to better that of others – her staggering efforts have won her recognition and awards the world over – and yet she genuinely feels they have been but a drop in the ocean. 

    GJ: Parmeshwar Godrej is a name that is synonymous to being a style czarina, an influential arbiter, philanthropist, a visionary and one of the most powerful women in India. Of all the various roles you play, which one holds the most significance for you?

    PG: It It's the combination of different roles that one plays that contributes to a productive, fulfilling, and happy life.  Having said that, the one role that has for me held an edge over all the others and the one that I'm the proudest of has been that of being a mother to my three children Tanya, Nisa, and Pirojsha.  It's been an unconditional joy and has been the most significant and rewarding role of all.

    GJ: Journals, newspaper, and magazines rate you as the Icon of the city’s eminent circuit – How does it feel to be at the top. Are there any pressures to being an influential arbiter?

    PG: I don’t think anyone is at the top or at the bottom.  I have been given a lot in life for which I am grateful and I hope I’ve been able to use that to bring about something positive.

    GJ: Mrs. Godrej you are a versatile personality and are doing much to further economic and & social empowerment in India. What makes you so socially committed and inspired to reach out to the poor? Is it an inner calling to work for the welfare of your fellow humans?

    PG: It gives me tremendous emotional satisfaction to be able to bring about positive changes in the lives of others.  In addition, when one is fortunate enough to be in a position to help others, I believe it is a responsibility to do so.  

    GJ: About the Heroes project - It has been reported that the project uses the strategy of ‘educational entertainment’ to communicate to the masses the change that it inspires to instil in the Indian society. How successful have you been in achieving this goal? What response have you got from the masses?  What makes the Heroes Project unique?

    PG: Ever since its inception well over a decade ago, Heroes Project has used the platform of “education entertainment” for advocacy and communications programs in the realm of HIV awareness, prevention and access to services, for both the general population as a whole, and vulnerable populations that are at the heart of the epidemic in our country. We have used societal leaders, ranging from top film stars in Bollywood and regional cinema, as well as partnerships with top media channels, to devise messaging and programming including soap operas, talk shows and live events where key information is disseminated in a non-lecturing, inclusive way, so as to ensure maximum impact on the target audience. 

    It is not surprising that people listen better, absorb messaging better, and ultimately are more motivated to act when the messaging is delivered in a palatable, interesting and, yes, enjoyable way, rather than being made fearful or lecturing. We have worked with over 200 societal leaders, including movie stars, corporate leaders, faith leaders, politicians and civil society and community leaders as well.  Our belief is that anyone who commands a significant audience can be an advocate for change, a hero, if you will.
    We are not content with simply reaching millions of people via the media and other vehicles; yes, having such a reach is wonderful, but we want to really find out whether our messaging, our social marketing campaigns, actually bring about attitude and behaviour change, and motivate health-seeking behaviour at an individual and societal level. To that end, we have carefully evaluated many of our prominent and significant campaigns, using research agencies and appropriate instruments.  For example, in Andhra Pradesh, our HIV testing campaign titled “Mr Doubt”, in which a character symbolizing the voice of the conscience motivates people to get tested by overcoming stigma and fear, has succeeded in motivating significant numbers of people to act.  A wide-ranging survey carried out statewide showed that almost 50 percent of adults who watched the Mr Doubt public service announcements in cinemas and on TV said they would get tested, which is a truly staggering response to an issue that usually is ignored and swept under the carpet by the wider population. The success of that campaign has led to it being replicated in other states that we operate in.  Similarly, we have evaluated the various information/education/communication (IEC) campaigns we’ve conducted in Maharashtra and other states, on issues ranging from the reduction of HIV-related stigma and discrimination to the empowerment of marginalized communities – and the studies have yielded very encouraging results, validating our societal leader and media partnership strategy
    Our approach has been recognized not only by key funders and partners, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Google Trust, but by academic and scientific organisations and institutions that have invited us to share and present our work at various national, regional and global forums, including the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington. 

    GJ: Future plans for the Heroes Project?

    PG: By working on HIV/AIDS issues, we have also worked extensively with women’s and children’s issues, as well as other sectors where health cuts across so many facets – economic, cultural, social. We are very keen to take our expertise in behaviour change communications and social marketing to other parts of India where there is a strong need for our approach, and to focus on issues that are of prime importance, such as birth spacing and age of marriage in the northern states, for example, where development must go hand in hand with social and cultural changes. Heroes Project is perfectly poised to do so, and we are keen to partner with a range of stakeholders, from government to civil society, to achieve this and be of support to our nation as a whole.  Indeed, I invite potential partners to talk to us to see how we can work together to use our successful and proven societal leaders and media partnership approach on a range of issues of regional and national importance.

    GJ: You have declined many awards presented to you for your philanthropic works. Why is that so?  

    PG: I'm deeply grateful and humbled by being offered these awards but sincerely feel my accomplishments are slight & undeserving of such honours

    GJ: You have served as a Non- executive director of Godrej Properties Limited since 1989 – how challenging an assignment has it been to handle the functions of such a large empire? What was your role in marketing the company and how did you go about doing it?

    PG: I made a conscious effort to focus my energies on the design innovation aspect of the business as I wanted to see design embedded in the DNA of Godrej Properties.  My goal has been to ensure that Godrej Properties integrated the use of design to improve the quality of people’s lives, create economic value for the business, and make work more interesting for it’s employees. When exploited to it’s fullest potential and used responsibly, design can contribute considerably towards creating a better society and be a great enabler of value creation. 

    GJ: You are a Director of Godrej Properties Limited and of Indian Hotels and Health Resorts Private Limited; you are on the boards of Gates Foundation, The Gere Foundation, JCB Cine Blitz Publications and The Palace School, Jaipur, The IPF Board  in San Francisco and many more. Now that is quite a lot!  Can you please tell us how do you manage time?

    PG: Making " To do lists” for time management helps me in not wasting time trying to remember or recall the tasks at hand.  Staying focused on one job at time often yields better results.  Setting reasonable goals and targets for both home and work. I try to work smarter not necessarily harder. 

    GJ: What is that one quality in you that helps you balance home and work with such finesse?

    PG: Dedication and attention to detail. 

    GJ: You recently hosted American talk-show goddess Oprah Winfrey's grand welcome soiree in Mumbai. The party, graced by top industrialists and almost the entire Hindi film industry, once again established you as the one to wield the almighty wand in the  upper echelons of the Indian society. How does that make you feel? Can you please tell us a little bit about your experience?

    PG: It feels good to be appreciated. I try to anticipate my friends’ needs in an attempt to make their time at my home memorable 

    GJ: You stand at the pinnacle of glamour, poise, and charisma. How do you manage to look so eclectic always?

    PG: To quote Dianne Vreerland, the only real elegance is in the mind; if you've got that, the rest really comes from it.

    GJ: How would you describe fashion and style?

    PG: Fashion is big business with its fluctuating hemlines! Down one season and up the next.  Fashion is a state of mind.  A spirit, an extension of one's self.  Style is much more than what you wear, it's the total combination of the way you dress, talk, move or do anything for that matter. Fashion is just one part of your style.  Style is individualistic. It means so many things to different people...to me it means being creative and confident. 

    GJ: You have been labelled as one of India’s ‘notable persons’. Do you think the term is somewhat limiting?

    PG: I don't think so. I think it is a positive term that means you are worthy of notice in whatever you do.

    GJ: Over the years, you have significantly reduced your media exposure and become comparatively low profile. Can you tell us why?

    PG: On the personal front, I’ve come to feel that the media can be an unwanted invasion into ones privacy, particularly when many parts of the media are not beyond stretching or inventing facts to make a better story.
    On the other hand, the responsible media are of course brilliant at bringing attention to current issues and educating the public about important issues and have been a great a support and indeed partners to the Heroes Project.  I compliment and thank them for that.

    GJ: Your son Pirojsha joined the company when he was 23 and I remember Mr.Adi Godrej had said at that time that Pirojsha would be promoted based on his performance. The usual norm in Indian businesses is nepotism; however in your son’s case it was different. Would you say your three childhood had to always earn their reward? Have they fulfilled the responsibilities you entrusted upon them?

    PG: Pirojsha joined the group as a management trainee and after having been exposed to all aspects of the business has evolved to his present position as Managing Director & CEO of Godrej Properties.  He is doing a great job in leading the company through this phase of rapid growth.

    GJ: How about the two girls? Would you say Tanya & Nisa are better marketeers than you? How far have your children been successful in fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted upon them?

    PG: Tanya and Nisa are much better and closer to the marketing scene now than I am. Both of them have done exceedingly well in taking the Godrej brand and businesses to new heights.

    GJ: Please tell us a little bit about the parenting mantra you practiced to bring up the three very successful children.      

    PG: Anecdotes from my own life experience helped.  It was an unconditional joy bringing up my children and I absolutely loved spending quality time with them.  Love was no doubt an essential part of parenting, but it was judiciously mixed with discipline, knowledge, patience, courage, consistency, and the virtue of learning from ones mistakes.

    GJ: Please tell us about your own childhood and thebest moments of your life...

    PG: It’s always challenging trying to write about oneself, but as I’ve been asked to recollect highlights of my life to date, I shall look back at the past several decades which, frankly, have gone by so fast I can scarcely believe I’ve actually experienced so many amazing, fulfilling chapters and moments in a life I’m truly grateful for.

    I was raised in what you might call a regular middle-class Punjabi household where life was beautifully simple.  My father, Rajpal S. Mader, was in the army, and my mother, Tara, had a challenging job as well, raising three children – my older brother Harinder, sister Ishwar, and myself!  Thanks to my dad’s various postings, we travelled extensively across our vast country.  As you might expect from a military man, my dad was a strict disciplinarian and instilled in us the importance of integrity and self-esteem, as well as a respect for others across all segments of society.  My mother was very spiritual, as you may guess from the names she chose for her children!  They were both very conservative, even for their time.  I miss them both to this day.

    The childhood moments I recall with great happiness are our summer holidays in the mountains, especially Kashmir (which was then so untroubled), with my parents and siblings. Then there are the wonderful memories of the Maharaja of Patiala's superb Yadavindra Public School, where I was the favourite of the German principal, Lt. Col. Frankton Von Goldstein, who taught us English Literature and affectionately called me Olivia from the heroine of Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night.  In school, which was noted for its emphasis on outdoor activities (especially cricket and hockey), I excelled in sports, dramatics, debates, and Indian classical dancing, including the disciplines of Kathak and Bharatanatyam.  Years later, when I had my own children, I would similarly emphasise the importance of extra-curricular activities as a key component of their school years for a truly well-rounded education.

    Despite my traditional family upbringing, I had a bit of a rebellious streak that my parents attempted to control.  For example, an Italian film producer wanted to consider me for a film but my parents said a firm “No”!  Other similar offers and opportunities were turned down as well.  It wasn’t until I met Adi, my future husband, while I was studying at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay, that I was able to truly spread my wings.  It was Adi who encouraged me to join Air India in the 1960s, at a time when flying had a touch of glamour to it, despite my family and friends objecting.  It was Adi who brought me to my very first flight and came to the airport to greet me when I returned – and then, ironically, asked me to give up flying almost immediately after I’d started, as he missed me even during my short absences.  Eventually, I only flew with Air India for a few months, after doing quite a few modelling assignments for Air India in Geneva, Paris, New York and other cities. Observing a service industry up close was a good learning experience which stood me in good stead later when I became involved in various consumer and marketing projects at Godrej.
    Marrying Adi opened up a whole new world to me, one very different in many ways from the one I had been raised in, but one that also emphasised family values, respect and loyalty in much the same way my parents had.  When I eventually became a parent myself, my joy knew no bounds – first with my oldest, Tanya, then with Nisa and Pirojsha. Years later, with Tanya’s marriage to Arvind and Pirojsha’s to Karla, I gained an additional son and daughter as well.  Then there are my grandchildren – Tanya’s sons Aryaan and Azaar, with whom I spend as much time as possible.  And of course, my sister Ishwar – who passed away far too soon from cancer – had a son, Uraaz, who is like a son to Adi and me as well. 

    I also value my many friends both in India and globally, who have been a great source of friendship, learning, and fun through my life.

    Speaking of business, I have always combined my professional, social, and family responsibilities by paying attention in equal measures to all three.  I was never content with the idea of being a stay-at-home wife, and always wanted to run my own business, or at times more than one!

    With Adi’s encouragement – and a modest loan from him – I started my first independent venture in fashion by establishing “Dancing Silks”, which turned out to be hugely successful.  I exported to the designer floor at the legendary Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as to outlets in Paris and Australia, besides designing for the domestic market as well as for the film industry.  I used to go regularly to the prêt-a-porter in Paris with my buyers to observe the latest trends for upcoming seasons, and established my brand very quickly both here and overseas.  (I should note that I paid Adi’s loan back in full – plus interest!)

    Branching out into a different avenue of design, I ran a successful interior design business here in India and abroad, both on my own and occasionally in collaboration with others such as SunitaPitamber.  

    Then there was my involvement in advertising and marketing at Godrej itself, partnering with others on memorable ads and campaigns.  One success story that truly stands out from my perspective is the launch of Ganga, the bath soap that our initial market research indicated should be scrubbed entirely as the name was deemed too controversial or sensitive for various sensibilities. But I persisted, and Ganga became one of our strongest selling consumer products ever, part of the profits from which were used in an early initiative to help clean the Ganges River itself.

    And, of course, it’s no secret that I’m besotted with the realm of cinema – I’ve always been fascinated by this art form (and for me, cinema is art) – and so it was no surprise that when the opportunity presented itself in 1990, through my good friends James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, I helped co-produce one of their most offbeat films ever, The Perfect Murder, which I accompanied to several film festivals where it won accolades from many critics.  In the same vein, I formed a company in 2000 with ShekharKapur, called Starlight, with the intention of producing commercial and ad films.  Just a year earlier, Shekhar produced a Ganga soap ad film for me, with Govinda and his then three-year-old son, Yash, as our models.

    Another passion of mine is art – I was an art and design student myself, and I’ve always appreciated and sought out the finest art in the world.  One of my closest, dearest friends was our great master M.F. Hussain himself, with whom I co-founded a museum in Hyderabad in 2005 which was intended to showcase both art and cinema.

    Despite all these achievements, the one I’m perhaps the proudest of is the establishment of the Heroes Project, the HIV/AIDS communications and advocacy NGO that I co-founded with Richard Gere to bring attention to the pandemic in India, educate the wider public, empower the most vulnerable populations to access health and social services, and remove the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.

    I have been fortunate that my husband has always considered me an equal in every way.  From the very beginning Adi has discussed business matters with me at home, and has sought my advice on several fronts. I'm currently on the board of Godrej Properties, which is truly making a significant mark in its sector, and work closely with our design and marketing teams there.  I’m a strong believer that property development can and should be environmentally friendly and aesthetic, and am gratified that we are being recognized for these attributes.

    In sum, I’ve had a fulfilling life full of amazing experiences both professional and personal – a life I could never have imagined all those years back when I was a young girl.  Yes, there have been challenges on many fronts as well, as there are in any and every life, but I am fortunate that I’ve always had the support and love of family and friends to help me surmount these.  I am singularly blessed and give thanks to God for all that I have – my husband, children and grandchildren above all.

    GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman.

    PG: A quintessential woman lives striving to become the best version of herself.  She is a woman who has realised her strengths, lived authentically through triumph and tragedy and has committed herself to try to better the lives of others.

    GJ: Your definition of a perfect evening?

    PG: It varies: watching a movie; reading; or being with family and friends whose company I enjoy

    GJ: If you had three days off, how would you ideally spend it?

    PG: To go on a relaxed holiday with the family in the mountains. 

    GJ: If you met God, what is the one question that you would like to ask Him?

    PG: Why is there so much suffering, starvation,  poverty and inequality in this world.  Why so much unequal opportunity?

    GJ: Your advice to our young women readers, who wish to be you. 

    PG: That life is beautiful and that there's deep meaning and purpose in it and it's not only for a select fortunate few. It's for every girl who believes in herself. So pursue your dreams and be passionate, committed, and motivated in what you love.

    Late Parmeshwar Godrej


    Carrying forward a legacy is never easy, especially when you are expected to fill as large a pair of shoes as KK Birla’s. If the experience left her enriched, it also proved to be daunting, as Shobhana Bhartia candidly confesses. But once she had proved her place in the organization, nothing could stop her. Silencing critics, turning over age-old customs into new and relevant practices, she has singularly driven the Hindustan Times transformational story and taken it to a whole new league.

    GJ: You joined Hindustan Times in an era when it was unprecedented for women to lead corporate houses. Did you feel the need to prove yourself?  

    SB: Yes, and no. My father was very hands-on in the business, so to that extent it wasn’t an entity that was given to me solely for me to try and prove myself, but I definitely wanted to establish a position for myself and garner some relevance in what I was doing. Being a woman in a corporate world at a time when society was quite conservative, required me to do more. So, it was challenging. Initially, people felt that maybe I was going to office only to pass my time and that I would eventually get bored of it in a year or two and pack my bags and leave or start doing something else. But when you stick it out, they know that you’re here to stay, and then after a couple of years, they start taking you a little more seriously. I think, it’s challenging for every woman who enters the world of business. Even today, though the challenges are fewer, it’s still difficult because every woman has many other responsibilities apart from her professional life. At the end of the day, she doesn’t cease to be a homemaker, she doesn’t stop doing domestic chores, and she doesn’t stop being a wife, a mother, a sister, or a daughter. A man, on the other hand, can pretty much ignore everything at home and focus on work. It’s even more difficult for women who want to have children. They have a right to start a family, but they don’t get enough maternity leave, they don’t have the facilities, and they don’t have domestic help at home where they can leave the child. I have met with many people in order to understand their challenges, and I had even taken up the cause of women in the Parliament. 

    The truth is that it is a very challenging thing to be a professional and to be a woman in this country. What should a young professional couple who has a child do? Where can they leave their child if both of them want to work? Should the mother give up her career? You don’t have crèches in every neighborhood, and even if you find a crèche, it may or may not be a quality crèche. So, if there’s nowhere to leave the child, where s/he will be well fed and taken care of, what do they do? Most women give up their job, and we lose out on the large chunk of our population that can’t work because the infrastructure support is just not there. Most of these women want to work, but they need to have a support system that society has to provide them with to be able to actually unleash their potential.

    GJ: You were born in the Birla family, and then you married Mr. Bhartia, a business tycoon in his own right. How has the journey been for you thus far?

    SB: It’s been very rewarding and challenging, at the same time. It’s an ongoing journey, and there’s never been a time when I’ve felt that the organization has reached its peak and it can go no further. I’m always striving to do more and more, looking at newer opportunities, newer options, and each time I reach a milestone, there is a sense of satisfaction, but it has also been a challenging journey getting there. Also, gender does play a part, and in the initial years, it was a little tough. But when you achieve something you had set out to do, it’s very rewarding. 

    GJ: You have been bestowed with a remarkable legacy. What was it like for you to spend time with powerful personalities such as your grandfather, the late GD Birla, and your father, the late Dr. KK Birla?  

    SB: They were, as you rightly said, powerful personalities, and therefore, there was always a slight amount of intimidation that I felt, despite the fact that they were my father and my grandfather. I think it’s because I knew what they had gone through, the trying times through India’s freedom movement, and also their association with Gandhiji and Nehru. You hear from them firsthand all the stories of the struggle that they went through at an individual level, and also about what the country had to go through before we achieved what we did. It’s sometimes a little daunting, but it was also very enriching, because it gave me a good perspective on what had passed. Since I was not privy to those times, because I am a post-independence person, it was fascinating to hear from them the challenges and the simplicity with which they had to lead their lives. Of course, my father was also always very indulgent. Despite being a towering personality, it was my father who we turned to every time we needed a little bit of indulgence. I guess when you have two parents, one has to be the task master and the other has to be a little lenient, because you can’t have both parents trying to constantly discipline you. For us, our father was always the lenient figure at home. So, it was a kind of mixed bag: very interesting and very enriching, with all kinds of anecdotes and perspectives about days that we had not witnessed but were crucial to our history, and also very indulgent. He was also very meticulous when it came to our studies, and he would plan out in detail how we spent our time. We had a good mix of doing what we wanted to and pursuing whatever we were fond of, but at the same time, there was enough time spent on academics.

    GJ: From among you and your two sisters, you were chosen for the media. What was the thought process behind this choice?

    SB: I can’t answer that question because I don’t know what the thought processes were. That said; I’ve always been very interested in public life from a very early age, and so, perhaps, one of the factors that might have led him to make this decision was my passion for public life. Media is unlike any other business. It not only needs to be run in a very professional manner with all the other parameters that would apply to any other corporate sector, but it also requires you to have a passion for it and for public life. In that sense, it’s like a cause, where you have the power to mold public opinion and the responsibility of molding it for the betterment of society. Unless you have a certain passion for this cause and unless you feel strongly about society, about the nation, you can’t be in the business of publishing. So perhaps, my early signs that I was very interested in public life may have been one of the factors that made him decide that perhaps Hindustan Times (HT) would be something that I really treasure.

    GJ: Your home has been the meeting place for some of the most prominent names and influential personalities. Given your strong background, who would you say are the people who have influenced you the most?

    SB: Strangely, I wasn’t really influenced by many people, because though there were many people in and out of the house, they were there to meet my father and we, as children, weren’t really around. My father was very close to Indira Gandhi, so I would hear a lot about her determination and what she stood for. I think, I was really influenced only by my father. I don’t think I was really influenced by any political entity.

    GJ: How did you cope with gender issues in the early part of your career?

    SB: After a certain stage, you stop thinking of gender. You are a professional, and therefore, if there are publishers who are being called for interactions with public personalities, I don’t think of it as women vs men. We are all people representing the publishing world, for instance, you have the publisher of TOI, publisher of Indian Express, and publisher of Pioneer; so what we have in common is our profession, not our gender. Every platform that I am invited to, I speak on a subject because I feel passionate about it, it doesn’t matter if other three people who feel as passionately about it are men. Nonetheless, gender does play a role when you are initially trying to carve a niche for yourself, but once you’ve taken that quantum lead, gender becomes irrelevant. To be very honest, I speak at and attend multiple meets and events, and I never think about how many women or men are there. We’re all just professionals, with the same thought processes. 

    GJ: From what I understand, Home TV was a challenging venture for many reasons. Could you share with us about your experience with Home TV and the lessons you learnt from it? 

    SB: They say that nothing strengthens you more than failure, and that’s very true. Sometimes when you experience a setback early in your professional career, it toughens you up and gives you the ability to take more risks along the way. There’s always that fear of failure, but once you’ve confronted it and experienced it, you have nothing to fear. Home TV was a venture that was perhaps slightly ahead of its time. There were no private channels, only DD 2, and the cost of a satellite transponder was 10 times the cost that it is today. So, it was an expensive proposition, there were many partners involved, and the market was not mature. It’s true that the returns did not come in as quickly as we had expected them to, but I think we should have stuck in there for a couple of years. If we had had staying power, we would have had a great first mover advantage and would have captured a larger chunk of the market. However, two of our international partners, Carlton and Pearson, the two who actually had the expertise, globally decided to exit broadcasting. Pearson had decided to quit television worldwide, so they pulled out, and Carlton were hand-in-hand with Pearson, so they too pulled out. That left us, another Asian partner, and the fund. None of us had the expertise, except the Asian partner, but then we had to recapitalize the company because the losses were mounting and we needed a greater gestation period. When it came to refinancing the company, there was a lot of uncertainty. I was still very new to the company, and as I told you earlier, there were many challenges, so I couldn’t convince the senior management that this was the medium of the future that required investing in for future profits. I was seen as a young person who had just joined the organization, as opposed to the people with 20 to 30 years of experience who felt that this was a money-losing proposition. They suggested cutting our losses and moving out, which is what we did. I didn’t have the years of experience to be able to convince them otherwise. Till today, I feel very sad about it; it was a lost opportunity. But, I have learnt many lessons from it, and maybe we could have done things differently. The problem was that there were many international partners, and every decision was taken jointly by the five of us and at a global level. Also, in India, we can do things in a slightly more cost-efficient manner, but in this venture, everything was done according to global standards, resulting in lots of expenditure.

    GJ: Where do you get the strength to bounce back from setbacks? As women, we tend to take things a bit personally; does that hinder your ability to overcome hurdles?

    SB: You have to bounce back. Fortunately, God has been kind, and we have excelled in every other venture other than Home TV. You can’t shy away from failure; instead, you learn from failure and you come back stronger and you take that risk again. As they say, if you don’t take risks, you’re never going to grow. I think, you need to get into a business only if you have the stomach for it. Business means ups and downs; it means successes and failures. There is no sure-shot recipe for success. Endless companies wind up, they go belly up, and people go bankrupt, but you have to have the grit to stay in there.

    GJ: You started your career with the Sunday Magazine, which was a prominent publication in Indian journalism. Are you planning to revive it?

    SB: I am very closely associated with the Sunday section and the whole paper now. The Sunday magazine was never published independently; it was the Sunday section of the HT. So now, part of it is Brunch, and the other part of it has got absorbed in the Sunday paper. Essentially, all those big pages, which were in the long form of journalism, were earlier part of a separate supplement, and are now merged in the main paper. In that sense, HT’s Sunday paper is distinctly different to its weekday paper.

    GJ: Some senior journalists and columnists, such as Vir Sanghvi, C Rangaswami, and Rajiv Makhani, have all achieved individual branding through your papers. Was this a business tactic or did it just happen?

    SB: I don’t think it just happened. It’s always good to create icons and to create brands, because when you help create a brand, that brand’s success is linked to your success because that brand is associated with you. This is a very common marketing practice across various platforms, for example, Oprah Winfrey was created by a platform, and then the positive rub-off of her brand benefitted the platform. These brands can be products or individual personalities, and in the case of the latter, you provide them a platform to showcase their skills. It’s a win-win situation. If they didn’t have the skills, just giving them the HT platform would not be enough. It’s both their skills and my platform; so creating brands requires working in tandem.
    I have always been extremely focused on editorial, and there is a lot of weightage that we give to an individual’s content. It’s about editorial positioning of the product; it’s not simply a marketing platform.

    GJ: Could you share with us about the niche positioning that HT has created; what was the business strategy and conceptualization behind that?

    SB: The events that you speak about have been consciously created by analyzing certain positioning. For instance, the leadership summit is all about thought leadership, and at the end of the day, newspapers are an intellectual product, and therefore, you want to take ownership of that thought leadership, of being able to mold public opinion, of standing up for a certain viewpoint, and of being able to analyze, deliberate, and debate issues. To this end, the leadership summit allows us to have and to provide a platform where for two days some of the world’s top minds discuss and debate ideas, viewpoints, and socio-economically relevant issues. This gives us the edge, because we ask the important issues and we try and provide solutions and answers to them as well. It’s a very natural extension of what the brand stands for. That said; it is also a business proposition, and there is a positive rub-off for the paper. 

    Similarly, the luxury summits were started almost five years ago, when luxury markets had not even opened. So again, we wanted to have the first mover advantage, and we organized the first luxury summit in Mumbai. Many people told me that it was a little ahead of its time. I still remember that for the first summit, I went to Paris and London and personally invited international brand owners, such as Louis Vuitton. I tried to sell India to them. Today, the situation is reverse. Everyone wants to enter the Indian market. It’s a new market, and a very interesting market, so everyone wants to get invited to the summit. So again, it was about spotting a trend, identifying it, and knowing that eventually India’s economy would be no different to the West. So, we took the initiative and established the luxury summits. At present, we get enough marketing support, enough sponsors, and enough people who support the brands, making the venture financially viable and profitable.    

    GJ: Dr. KK Birla was very involved in your business, and I assume that any father would be very proud of his daughter becoming such a prominent figure and changing the history of the industry. Did your father ever tell you that he’s proud of you?

    SB: He was very much involved in the business. He died two months before he turned 90, and he was working right till the end. And yes, he did sometimes mention how proud he was of me, and he also said so in his autobiography. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than trying to meet his expectations.

    GJ: Some people believe that a lot of your success can be attributed to your closeness with the Indian National Congress. Do you feel you are often misunderstood on this front? 

    SB: My family has typically been a very staunch Congress supporter, because the Congress was the only significant party pre-independence, and it basically led the Indian independence movement. My grandfather was Gandhiji’s close associate, as you know he lived in our house, and my father was very closely associated with all the leaders of the freedom struggle. So, that affiliation with the Congress or our identification with the Congress is not something that has been kept hidden, it’s always been out in the open. In the post-independence era, there were multiple parties that made an appearance, but for a long time, the Congress retained its dominance, and my family, because of its own historical connections with the Congress, retained the same linkages with it. I was nominated by the UPA government—you are given the opportunity to join a political party of your choice within six months of your nomination—but I decided not to join any political party and retain my independence because I also happen to be the Editorial Director of the HT. But my father was a member of the Congress party, so under these circumstances, it is natural for people to associate the family with the Congress. 

    From the viewpoint of the paper, we do not take a pro or an anti-Congress stand or a pro or an anti-BJP stand; our support and criticism is on the basis of issues. For instance, when it came to inflation or the depreciation of the rupee, we’ve been critical of the government, even if it happens to be led by the Congress. My grandfather and my father were fully with the Congress, and so, since I am the first generation that has not been with the party, that rub-off is there. For example, the son of a senior leader in the BJP like LK Advani is going to be perceived as close to BJP, or Arun Jaitley’s children will be perceived as being close to the BJP, whether or not they are. I am often told that I am a Congress sympathizer, and I guess that’s natural, but I have tried to retain full editorial independence as far as HT is concerned, because for me, my constituency is my readers, and I need to be as objective as possible for them, and in being as objective as possible, if it means that there are issues that need to be commented on, we comment on them, even if it involves criticizing the Congress.  

    GJ: Over the years, you’ve received various awards and accolades, including the prestigious Padma Shri. Which achievement or award has been closest to you?

    SB: I wouldn’t say any award or achievement has been close to me. I received the awards and recognitions based on my work, and though they don’t matter that much to me, I still think they are important because they help motivate the entire organization. When the Chairperson of an organization or the Vice-chairperson, as I was when I got many of these awards, receives recognition, it’s a matter of pride for the entire organization. To that extent, I am happy about the awards, because of the impact they have had on the organization in terms of the various positions that I have held on several boards or as head of ABC. The two positions that I have enjoyed much more than the others have been my association with Doon School and my association with BITS Pilani. The satisfaction associated with educational institutions is far more than being on corporate boards or chairing the ABC. These are just an extension of my work, but when I was on the board of Doon School, it was a boy’s club, and I was the first and only woman to be on the board. Of course, after me, they have decided to induct more women. But, it was a very rewarding experience, and the fact that it was already such a great institution, so determining what one can do to improve the quality and standard was something I enjoyed doing. My association with BITS, with which I am still associated, has also given me a great deal of satisfaction. Apart from that, when the late Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, he had decided to experiment with non-academicians being involved with colleges, and so I was on the board of one of the colleges of Delhi University, and later, I chaired one of the colleges. So, these were some of the experiences that I actually enjoyed, even though they were not directly related to the work I do. 

    GJ: Indian journalism is now pretty synonymous with paid news. While the media is expected to be neutral and politically unbiased, where do you draw the fine line between revenue and authenticity?

    SB: To my mind, there is actually no debate on this issue. I completely abhor paid news, and I think it does a lot of discredit to our industry; it’s like a cancer that’s plaguing the industry. The HT Group does not have any paid news policy whatsoever. If anyone has paid for any content that we publish, then we write the word “advertisement” on top, but there is never any paid news published that masquerades as genuine news. You can buy promotional news in the HT, but you can’t buy a position; no partnerships with companies.

    GJ: Stepping aside from the professional and into the personal, if you had three free days, how would you spend them?

    SB: I like to holiday. I don’t take too many holidays, but I take frequent short holidays. I just like to spend my time in an unstructured manner, because otherwise, my days are very structured. For me, being able to get up when I want, do what I want, and eat when I want is a luxury. So, I generally only get free time when I travel, never in Delhi. I also love food and I‘m a big foodie; I enjoy choosing good restaurants, planning where to eat, researching restaurants and their chefs, and identifying the good dishes at each place. I also like just walking around. I am also a great spa buff, and I like going the spa. It relaxes me, and I am able to spend time doing nothing, which I love. What I love about these breaks is that I forget what I am supposed to do next, that I don’t have to look at my diary and decide which issue to deal with next. I also like watching television serials and reading books. 

    GJ: What’s your favorite book?

    SB: There is no favourite book as such. The last book I read was Steve Jobs’ biography, which I found very gripping. Most biographies generally undermine a person’s shortcomings, but I found that this actually highlighted a lot of the negatives as well. I think, it’s one of the more candid biographies I’ve read. 

    GJ: I assume you are very fond of autobiographies and biographies. If you could choose to be one personality, living or dead, besides yourself, who would it be? 

    SB: It’s a difficult question. I don’t know. I’ve mentioned this before that the people whom I admired the most were my parents. I learnt a lot from my father, but equally from my mother. From her, I learnt the value of life. She was a very strong person, and she kept the family together. Sometimes, we tend to discount the role of a woman who is not working, but my mother played a very quiet and extremely important role. Often, members of a family go their own separate ways, and you need someone to keep them together, my mother did that. She always stood by people, and she accepted you for what you were, not necessarily because you were her role model or because you did what she thought was right, but because she loved and respected people for what they were, regardless of their shortcomings. And all of us have shortcomings, so to be able to accept people without being judgmental even when your own beliefs are different was very inspiring to me. My mother was a conservative person, so her beliefs were very often different from others, and yet, she accepted that society had changed. We all tend to be very judgmental about people in general, and we are quick to judge people based on what is right and wrong. But my mother never did that; she was fiercely loyal when it came to family. So, even if someone in the family had done something that she didn’t think was the best thing to do, she would tell you that she didn’t agree, but her commitment and love would never deter. I think that kept us all together. My father had a very busy life; he never had enough time to be at home, and I started staying a busy life too, but my mother found the time to be that glue. There’s still a lot that I have to learn from her. Though she wasn’t a professional, she was a very strong-willed woman. I look up to her. She is no more, of course. 

    GJ: If you had to define yourself in one sentence, what would it be?

    SB: I’ll leave that to others. But, all the same, I want to be described as a good human being, and that’s it. I don’t want any other accolades, because nothing else matters. If you can’t be a good human being, it doesn’t matter what position you’ve achieved. I want to be fondly remembered, regardless of the position I had or didn’t have. I don’t envy those who have a lot of power, because nobody misses them, nobody gives a damn about them. 

    GJ: How would you define your quintessential woman? 

    SB: A woman who knows what her aims and objectives in life are, and who tries to achieve them without losing her softness. I think it is important to remember that at the end of the day women have a softer side, and being a professional shouldn’t have to mean discarding that aspect completely. I think it’s nice to be able to be sensitive and relate to family and friends, and yet have a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your professional life. I like focusing on both my professional and personal lives, but I don’t mix them. 



    Indu Jain might not be as written about as other media barons and baronesses, but those who know her you say that she wouldn’t have it any other way. Content to operate from the background, she leaves the running of the business – the largest media house in the world, no less – to her sons, but her role of the peacemaker, the crisis-manager, the one answer to conflicts, is what holds this giant empire together. To successfully oversee a business of this might, while living a life seeped in spiritual pursuits – here she tells us why the two need not be mutually exclusive.  

    GJ: As chairperson of one of the most powerful media houses in the world, what do you think is the role of media in a developing country like India?

    IJ: The role of the media is of great responsibility. It has the power to make or break; hence, it should be a responsible co-creator. It is the source of all information for most people. This role can be used very responsibly to spread awareness. In a country as diverse as India, the priorities of different kinds of people are different, their tastes are different and the issues they are dealing with are also different. So, the challenge is to find the right note that resonates across all these different people, and find stories and issues that matter to everybody. People are increasingly getting interested in how the country is being governed. In such a scenario, the media has a very critical role to play.

    The Indian media has been through different phases in the last decade or so. In the beginning, every little development or incident was portrayed sensationally. Although, that still happens today, the audiences have matured. We, being the largest media group, take this very seriously, and take utmost care that news is given as news and not as a sensation. The portrayal of content has become more responsible, and the media is being used as a tool to cause real and positive changes in society. Media should be giving positive suggestions. They should be like a friend, philosopher and guide to the rulers of the country. Media has to be visionary.

    GJ: How would you assess the Indian media as compared to the media of developed nations?

    IJ: The diversity of India sets it apart from other nations. Most other developed nations have homogeneous societies: people have similar tastes, priorities, languages, etc. So, while the media penetration is nearly total in developed nations, it is split in India due to these factors. A Malayalam channel is not watched in north India, for example. Therefore, the challenge is to be so comprehensive that you appeal to everybody, at the same time being responsible. While many things in the media in developed nations have been tried, tested and set in stone, our media will continue to experiment with new things for a long time.

    GJ: What qualities do you attribute to BCCL’s success? 

    IJ: Beautify the change according to the need of time.

    GJ: What are your prime concerns as the Times Group chairperson? 

    IJ: Bringing balance, synergy and respect for each other’s performance.

    GJ: While you are the chairperson of the Times Group, you also exude a sense of motherhood, being a matriarch. How does being a grandmother extend to the power play of the corporate boardroom? 

    IJ: Lending my yeast to everyone and support the group. I am called ‘Shri Maa’. To be called ‘Shri Shri Maa’ will take a little more time.

    GJ: Why is there not much written about you by TOI, which is an information agent?

    IJ: People attract attention, I don’t do so. I don’t desire to be written about so much. If I wanted, it would have been so. 

    GJ: What, according to you, is the core role of the Times Foundation; and the finite change that you wish to bring about through the work?

    IJ: Times Foundation’s motto is: Your mission is our mission. Any campaign that we choose, Times Foundation strives to get it engrained in people’s minds and the government’s, so that it is scaled up and everyone benefits. We ensure the sustainability of any such campaign even after the momentum is over. We want that people start experiencing the anand or joy in giving more than receiving.

    GJ: What prompted you to introduce spirituality in the shape of the daily spiritual column, The Speaking Tree, and later, the Wellness Column? How did the idea come about?

    IJ: We are usually the pioneers of innovative ideas. The entire media was averse to the idea of spirituality and so, it was our ingenuity, our recognition of the need of the hour, that directed us to offer that subject to our readers, through The Speaking Tree. 

    GJ: How do you deal with criticism, negative comments?

    IJ: Smiling at them, whether they are right or wrong, is a very good practice in life.

    GJ: What is the biggest achievement, and what is yet-to-be-achieved at the Times Group?

    IJ: The biggest achievement is having great torchbearers and big hearted people at all the departments of the Times Group, and a great synergy they bring together in making the organization what it is today. Of course, the strong foundation has been laid by the two brothers with their infrangible togetherness. Popularizing spirituality in each reader’s home and creating respect for all the faiths is my yet-to-be achieved milestone.

    GJ: How would you rate India’s spiritual quotient today, especially that of the youth?

    IJ: It is quite high and rising. Indian spirituality has a lot of depth to offer and it is finding an appeal in youngsters now. Yet, I feel, more should be done by many more spiritual masters and spiritual organizations to involve the youth. For example, the Art of Living has a youth-focused club ‘Yes Plus’. Spirituality should be simplified and modernized for the youth to be able to implement it in their everyday life. It should be live, interactive and fun-oriented. 

    GJ: How concerned are you about today’s youth?

    IJ: The competition and struggle that today’s youth face is understandable, but they have to deal with their inner self. Through meditation and sankalpa, young people can deal with the tough times that they face. Of course, they should be well groomed in our traditional values. 

    GJ: You addressed the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, in 2000. Would the message in your speech remain the same after twelve years?

    IJ: Definitely, there is a big change in thinking and expression now. I realize that there is no exponential growth unless the people are not awakened to their spiritual selves. They should be given more opportunities to develop this by making available to them courses and discourses which explain and teach this in detail, like what the Art of Living is doing currently. Only then will the true transformation happen. That will be the true ‘living’ of my speech, to ‘walk the talk’.

    GJ: At the end of that speech at the UN, you had said, ‘Give women a chance and non-violence will effortlessly be the religion of the new millennium.’ What do you think of the women leaders we have in India, in politics and corporate sectors?

    IJ: We need more of them. You can see that the ones who have made it there have made a mark in their fields. That needs to be encouraged. On a lighter note, I feel that to excel, men require thirty-three per cent reservation, rather than women.

    Women have always been centres of power. That’s how they have been portrayed in our mythology as well, for e.g., Durga, Kali, Saraswati etc. This development will result in a more mature society for us. Since God has always chosen women to be of the highest stature and run the Universe, so should the government. 

    GJ: How do you view the position of Indian educated urban women in the country today? Are they carrying the burden of too many expectations and, sometimes, contradictory expectations to be modern and traditional, too?

    IJ: If they are, I think they are doing a good job of it. In your earlier question, you mentioned that women are taking more prominent roles in businesses. It can only happen if they have the ability in the first place, which they have always had. It is simply becoming evident now. And the challenge of balancing the traditional and modern is something that we can easily take in our stride. In fact, men should allow them more freedom and exposure, and the results will be even better.

    GJ: Despite the huge progressive strides, women still continue to suffer horrible atrocities in India. How do you view this dichotomy?

    IJ: People commit horrible atrocities on other people, some of which happen to be against women. I prefer to avoid generalizations because they can never be accurate, only approximate. The more mature a society is, the fewer such incidents we will see. Evidently, we have a lot of ground to cover on that front. Furthermore, if women were more empowered money-wise, education-wise, and freedom-wise, they will never allow these atrocities to happen. These happen only because they are not sufficiently empowered.

    GJ: There have been so many discussions on ‘spiritual hunger’. Globalization has made people consumerist and materialistic beyond belief. Do you view Indian society is degenerating?

    IJ: I wouldn’t say degenerating; Rather, I’d say we are evolving. We, in India, have always believed in these trends to be cyclic. And this is just a phase in that cycle of evolution. If people are becoming spiritual, after a phase of materialism, how is that degeneration? That’s evolution.

    I would say that growth index of a country should not be measured in the wealth accumulation it has done… Rather, it should have a holistic parameter of how much the people in the country have grown spiritually. 

    GJ: If you were asked to find a universal remedy for the world’s ills, what would it be?

    IJ: Advaitmat—we are all one; you and I are one. Taking the recent scientific findings, Dr Satyendra Nath Bose’s discovery of the ‘Boson particle’ implied the same. That we all are nothing but ‘God particles’, which is all pervading.

    GJ: India has always believed in the concept of divine feminine power—Shakti—yet the struggles continue for her, sometimes even for survival. Why do you think the Indian society has experienced such a dichotomy in philosophies on the feminine power? 

    IJ: Man forgot that he is powerful because of the feminine Shakti. By default, he started destroying all the power of a woman by curbing her growth and development in every field. Thus, he became very chaotic. Now, he is failing to handle himself. Knowledge of this whole phenomenon is missing. Shiv is the shav without the Shakti.

    GJ: What is your idea of a quintessential woman?

    IJ: Loving every role and loving in every role. 

    GJ: You have been instrumental in the establishment of the FLO, the ladies’ wing of FICCI years ago. Why did you feel the need to have a separate platform for women entrepreneurs?

    IJ: I didn’t like moving around as the tail or assistant of a man, and wanted to create an identity for women in the corporate world also. I didn’t like the man’s world; for me it has to be a world of both men and women.

    GJ: You also instituted the Mahatma Mahavir Award. What prompted you to institute the award and how satisfying has it been for you at the personal level, and as an Indian? 

    IJ: I wanted to establish the idea to have dispassionate politicians like Gandhi and the concept of Ahimsa or non-violence as a way of life. Thus, it happened in the presence of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. 

    GJ: What led you to conceive the idea of the Oneness Forum? 

    IJ: Because all the religions take you to the same goal, it very natural that there is nothing but Oneness. Each one of us has to realize and understand what appeals to us the most, and then take that path. In the end, all religions lead to the same thing: Bhakti—Gyan—Karma. The one who sees Oneness in all religions is spiritual. 

    GJ: The end goal for most successful people is a successful career in politics. Have you ever thought of entering the Parliament as a member?

    IJ: Yes, very much. But then my daughter enlightened me that I could do far more and better from behind the scenes than in the forefront of politics, and she is right. Politicians are constrained with just one party and I am free to get the support of all the people and all the parties.

    GJ: The world today is going through trying times—times of transformation. How do you see the importance of spirituality in this context and the path it can offer for the betterment of the Gaia consciousness?

    IJ: From 2012 onwards, a new era has begun, as many have predicted, as a new step forward towards consciousness. Those who are in connection with their souls will be the ones to benefit the maximum. So be spiritual. In spirituality, as in any other subject, there are steps to moving forward. The moment one reaches a higher class, they would automatically start believing in it. I also believe in the theory that all particles are God particles; that God is present in every particle.

    GJ: According to you, we are told to live in the ‘present’. What does it mean in terms of daily living?

    IJ: It simply means not having any regrets about the past, nor worrying for the future. We spend a lot of time doing both, and it is not at all essential towards having a fulfilling life. Life is what is now. If we take care of this, past and future are taken care of on their own.

    GJ: The one constant question for humankind is each one of us wanting to know ‘Who am I?’ How would you answer such a question?

    IJ: If I answer the question for somebody, then I’m answering a different question. Then I’m answering ‘Who are you?’ The very nature of ‘Who am I’ means one has to find the answer within oneself. Wake up to the reality that ‘I am God’. There is only one phenomenon manifesting in various ways and that’s what I am.

    GJ: Would you say that, at this stage of life, you have found spiritual certainty,  a sense of self-realization?

    IJ: I would like to quote here: Maine jaa kar dekha hai, rehguzar ke aage bhi, rehguzar hi rehguzar hai... rehguzar ke aage bhi… Go beyond and be a witness… It is nothing but a continuum, and a new journey between life, death and life. 

    GJ: Please share with us your initiation into spirituality? Who has played the most pivotal role in attracting you towards it? 

    IJ: I had gone through the lives of roughly ninety saints and enjoyed conceptualizing an encyclopedia of saints and sages. I was born with an inclination to spirituality. My hobby, interest and passion have been nothing but spirituality. At every stage of my life, every saint I encountered was very relevant to me. It is a constant initiation, an unending journey. I was drawn to spirituality on my own. I didn't require anybody to draw me to it; I was born a seeker. I was very inquisitive and curious to explore.

    GJ: Does God exist? Or is each one of us fragments of the higher power? Does the law of Karma exist? 

    IJ: Yes, experience it yourself; choose the path of your liking. If you are heart-oriented, then the bhakti marg and if mind-oriented, then the gyan marg. Be brave, dissolve your ’I’ or personal ego, and experience a collective ‘I’. That’s what you are and that’s what God is. 

    GJ: Which are the questions you are frequently asked at spiritual meetings?

    IJ: The most frequent question that I am asked at both places is ‘How do I combine my spiritual life and business life at the same time?’ I think the answer is that my office is just an extension of my spirituality and my desire to share my knowledge, happiness and love with others. Essentially, bringing synergy between the inner and the outer world is true ‘spirituality’.

    GJ: Please share with us some of your favourite spiritual teachings.

    IJ: All religions are valuable for somebody or the other. The methodology may be different, but the achievement is the same. You should be intelligent enough to choose your path, whichever appeals to you and will take you to the top.

    GJ: How much is meditation a part of your life? 

    IJ: Every part of my life is a meditation. Some of it is very active while some of it is passive. Meditation is the answer for our conflict-ridden society and as you get connected to your highest self, the answer comes from there.

    GJ: What is your definition of ‘happiness’?

    IJ: When you feel so abundant that love and blessings pour out of you.

    GJ: How would you define spirituality?

    IJ: It’s a growing thing. The aim of spirituality is the growth in one’s inner and outer self. It means a balanced growth. The more your inner self grows, your outer self will also grow along with it. But people have lost this growth inside them. The time they spend on their work, business and other things, they hardly take care of their inner self. 

    GJ: You are an avowed follower of Lord Mahavira. It is said that you accepted Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev as your gurus. What prompted you to seek a guru? 

    IJ: I have moved from one guru to another and have been a devout believer of that very guru at that very moment. 

    GJ: A guru is known to be a dispeller of darkness. How has having a guru made a difference to your own consciousness and perception?

    IJ: Darkness is ignorance. One can be ignorant of age, time, subject, personalities, etc. So each guru has played his part to give me the vision of light as per my capability to receive.

    GJ: Spiritualist, chairperson of a media group, philanthropist, humanist, patron of art and literature – of all your various roles, which one has satisfied you the most, and why? 

    IJ: Each one these faculties are useful according to the need of the house. I believe in holistic development. Let me not be a fourteen kala-dhari or sixteen kala-dhari, but a sarv-kaladhari; bless me to achieve that.

    GJ: In the Indian tradition, wealth is associated with Moh and Maya, and spirituality is associated with abstinence and renouncement. How do you so effortlessly interlace the two worlds of wealth and spirituality?

    IJ: Do you think Krishna, with all his wealth, was in Moh and Maya? If everything is Brahmn, what would you renounce? It is a synergy; it’s a balance of both in my life. My knowledge, my love, my anandam is shared in my office very well.

    GJ: If you could be one person from history, who would you want to be and why? 

    IJ: Of course, Mr Shri Shri God, nothing less than God. I love to choose the highest.

    GJ: Do you believe in reincarnation? If yes, who would you like to be born as in your next life? 

    IJ: Reincarnation is not a belief but it is a truth. Of course, I always like to be born as a feminine force, Shakti, always ruling over Shiva.

    GJ: When you wake up in the morning, what are you most grateful for? 

    IJ: I am grateful to my life which is so vibrant and full of creativity. And only the world of media could satisfy all this.

    GJ: What according to you is the purpose of life? 

    IJ: To nurture the highest in me so that I can also enjoy the lowest of low and become the master of both sides of the coin.

    GJ: What are the qualities in people that annoy you the most, and what are the traits that win your admiration?

    IJ: At this age and having seen all that I’ve seen in life, what immediately appeals to me is simplicity and authenticity. And somewhere along the way, I’ve learnt that there is no good reason to get annoyed. Most of my thoughts are to give them exposure to spirituality.

    GJ: What aspect of human behaviour makes you distressed and which are the qualities that you would like to change?

    IJ: The idea that you can harm somebody and do good to yourself. Foolish as it is, a lot of people follow it and I feel for their ignorance. If it were up to me, I would like to tell everybody that nature is abundant, it has enough for everybody and they need not harm each other for petty gains.

    GJ: Do you think human nature is inherently greedy and selfish and that it has to be ‘taught’ to be giving and selfless?

    IJ: If greed was human nature, we would not have so many great people in history. Their lives prove that it is not.  Greed to gain more knowledge, to do more philanthropy and so on should be viewed positively.

    GJ: Please share a message for young readers who are inspired by your journey. 

    IJ: Remember: God is fun.

    GJ: What advice would you like to give to the readers?

    IJ: I would like to tell them that life is an incredible adventure and that they should give it their best. 


  • Priyanka Chopra

    Priyanka will tell you that the best part of her childhood years was the chance she got to be somebody else every two years. Her father was a doctor in the army, which meant moving homes frequently. While many would loathe such routine uprooting, Priyanka made the most of it. In many ways that love still remains, as she moves from film to film – internalizing her characters and living each new role to the hilt – a passion that makes her, easily, the most talented woman actor in the country today.

    GJ: Shahrukh Khan asked you during your Miss India contest as to who would you want as your partner: a poor or a rich guy…? 

    PC: No, he said would you marry a business person who’d buy you diamonds, would you marry an actor like me who’d ask you multiple choice hypothetical questions, or would marry you a sportsman who’d make you proud. I said I’d marry a sportsperson. My answer is still the same. I chose the description. Monetary things I can take care myself, yes I would like to be with somebody who’d make me a proud wife. So even today I’d want to be with a man who I can be proud of and look up to and respect.

    GJ: Can you tell me about your childhood, about Priyanka when she was not famous?

    PC: Which was only 16 years of my life! I come from a very beautiful family, with very supportive parents, I went to boarding school when I was in 3rd standard, I went to America when I was in 7th and came back when I was in 12th. I traveled all over the world before I became famous because that’s how my parents were, they loved travelling. The best part of my childhood was being able to become somebody else every 2 years because I travelled all the time and we shifted homes every two years. We went to different schools, I had different friends from 4th and 5th standard onwards… 

    GJ: Your parents had a huge influence on you, can you tell me a little bit about how your father has influenced you as a person?

    PC: I am my dad’s pet, his belief in me and his pride in me has been a huge contributing factor to my drive and my focus in my job. My parents have put so much into me, like when I became Miss World my mom had a huge career as a physician and she had to quit it all to be with me because I was so young. For her it was a big change for me and for my dad, my entire family moved because they didn’t want me to be alone. They supported me in every choice that I wanted to make in every possible way and aspect of my life. I wanted to be that daughter to them. 

    GJ: Both your parents are physicians. Was acting an aspiration or it happened to you just like that?

    PC: It just happened because I was studying to be an engineer. When I was 17, I became Miss World and my life changed. I suddenly grew up. Movies started happening and when movies started happening I started learning harder, how to act and what is required and slowly it became my profession and now I am doing music and starting again right from the beginning. It was never planned; I was destiny’s favourite child. 

    GJ: How did that develop you as a person? Had Miss World and modelling not occurred then would you still have been…

    PC: No, I would not have been an actor. I would have been studying somewhere, engineering or something else may be. I never thought of acting as a profession, I don’t think anybody does until you come in, especially if you are from a non film background. 

    GJ: You entered the Miss India contest when you were 17. Can you share three achievements that you are proud of?

    PC: Winning the National Award is one, making a music album is the second, and making Barfee is the third. Pulling off Barfee, pulling off my character... I was very scared that I would not be able to pull it off. But it went off very well.

    GJ: Could you tell us more about how you felt receiving the National Award? 

    PC: It was crazy; I was in a state of shock for a really long time. Because I knew everybody was saying that I should get it and that it was tough getting it. When honorable President Pratibha Patil was about to hand over to me the medal, I was thinking that I will trip and fall, my whole family was there. It was really a very big deal.  

    GJ: Are there any other accolades that you are looking forward to in the future? 

    PC: Every award is an achievement, so it feels fantastic. There is a lot of humanitarian work which I do. One of my biggest achievements is I have created my own foundation called the Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Heath and Education. It’s going to come full fledged now, it’s legalized now so now it’s going to be fully functional. It’s an achievement for me to put everything together, I guess in so many different aspects I have had many achievements in many different ways.

    GJ: Can you tell us little bit about the health and education foundation?

    PC: All these years, I have worked a lot with UNICEF, and for the last two years, I have been its ambassador officially but unofficially, I have been associated with it for five-six years. We have done a lot of incredible work with them, before that I worked a lot with the girl child because I really believed in the education of the girl child. Giving education an incredible importance especially in India where the girls are not really viewed as important enough to be educated that need to change and that is an aspect which makes education an important part of my foundation. Also, I come from a family of doctors and that is also my own where we have been working a lot over the years but now, I want to formally be able to do it. This is one of my personal big achievements. 

    GJ: You said you were looking forward to certain things but you did not mention the Grammy. Why is that so? 

    PC: I never even looked forward to a national award when I got it, I am a dreamer but I am not delusional. I let things happen and unfold and then I accept them. 

    GJ: You are known to be a poet; you are also known to write in journal diaries, blogs, etc. Can we expect another creative expression from you, like a book?

    PC: You never know! I love writing, I have written a lot of songs on my album. I don’t put anything past me because I am very erratic in my choices, suddenly I would want to do something and that would become my obsession for a while. I never thought I’d be an actor or singer or Miss World and I never thought I wouldn’t be an engineer and that all happened to me so.

    One thing I’d definitely want by 40 is married with kids, and a grand house. The only thing that I am certain of that I would want in the next few years, may be in the next decade is to marry and have kids. Professionally I don’t want to put anything past me but personally I am a little girl. 

    GJ: You seem to have that perfect life, the perfect job …but I am assuming you had a struggle period. How was the journey?

    PC: The struggle still continues; it just changes form. There is no way that any human being can live a life without struggle. Because I started off with a Tamil film that does not mean that was my struggle period, the struggle is to beat yourself, to outrun yourself because you have set milestones for yourself. But success is also a validation but how long will validation last, once you get validated doesn’t mean you are validated for life. 

    GJ: At 22 or 21 when you started …

    PC: When you are young, the world is at your feet. Movies for me was like a summer vacation, I would go back to college and study. I came into movies thinking it could be fun. Because my films got validation, I got validation, winning all the debut awards and my first film doing well then me getting offers from a lot of other films. Doing Aitraz and Mujse Shadi Karogi, Fashion, Dostana… my career just rolled into being an actor. Nobody has a 100 per cent success rate except maybe Raju Irani but it’s just that struggle changes its face. 

    GJ: Fashion was great; Dostana was a superhit; then Saat Khoon Maaf and Rashee, which were very controversial for not making it through. What propelled you to take up Barfee?

    PC: In the meanwhile, I was doing Krishh, Don 2, Agneepath… Those are films you forgot to mention. 

    GJ: In Fashion, you depicted a very strong character.

    PC: It was just a character I played. I am not being diplomatic. It was written very well which is why I could play it very well. Like Barfee… today a 100 people telling me how wonderful the performance is, doesn’t mean I am autistic.

    Bollywood is not dark as people think, there is something positive in everybody’s life. It is what you decide to choose and run after. 

    GJ: Is it that easy in Bollywood?

    PC: It is not easy anywhere. Most of us always run after what we don’t have and we forget about what we have which is why we end up being ambitious but at the same time end up being unhappy. If you make peace with what you have and then after what you don’t you’ll be positive in life and why not lead a positive life. Be happy, meet people… it’s just one life 

    GJ: One message to all the people of the film fraternity? Something you wish you could say to them?

    PC: I want to say ‘thank you’ for accepting me as a part of the family. 

    GJ: What kind of roles are you looking forward to in the future?

    PC: I never plan my life, whatever choices come to me whoever produces or directs come to me and I pick from there, but I am just grateful because I am at a place where people have written such amazing parts for me. 

    GJ: Are you a methodical actor or a spontaneous one?

    PC: I am a spontaneous actor, method is required little bit everywhere, prep is required every time, of course, but when you got to the set all those preparation goes out of the window, so I say that be spontaneous. 

    GJ: What makes you stand out among your contemporaries?

    PC: My courage and conviction which can be seen as belligerence and rebellion sometimes but if I choose to do something I stick by it. Whether the film does or doesn’t do well I stick by my choices which is something I pride myself on. 

    GJ: If you could share your thoughts on women and the development of women roles in the Indian cinema today?

    PC: I think it’s changed so much; it’s a great time for a female actor in Indian films. We are doing parts, which are written for us. Even though Barfee as a film was a title role for Ranbir’s character, I had an incredible role to play in the film even though I was there for just 40% of the film. But, it was written so well for me and today, you see there are so many films where females have incredible roles to play in films whether it’s the Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Fashion, so many films that have happened and not just movies which are female oriented but like Barfi, for example, which has a male counterpart in it as well but a female’s part is just as good, so today films like that are being made. That’s a huge change for Indian cinema. 

    GJ: Given that you are an independent girl who has become successful, what has been your important learning lesson in the industry? 

    PC: Every single day with the kind of the pressures that we deal with to be bogged down and not be positive, to not be better and wallow in self pity and say that my life is screwed and terrible, but that’s my learning lesson. Yes there will be days when you don’t want to come out of your bed but you make yourself come out of the bed and look at the sun and say shine on me I’ll still look at you.

    GJ: What is that one big phase in your life…

    PC: It’s not just one but many phases, in different aspects many phases. Where there is good there will always be bad. 

    GJ: But professionally how difficult did it get for you and how did you get out of it?

    PC: Every 2 years when my films don’t do well people say that I am written off. It happened from my first to the last film 

    GJ: Did you miss having a godfather?

    PC: Yes, I did. In fact a lot of times in my career I always used to feel that what was missing because you meet people who had that support. A lot of your contemporaries have that, then you feel why don’t I have that. Then you feel that you have achieved all that on your own. So that’s another way of looking at it. 

    GJ: Is that one of the reasons for who you are today? 

    PC: And I take pride in it that made me a confident person. 

    GJ: Your response to the Friday Box Office when you started in 2003, and now… . How has your response shifted?

    PC: When I started in the beginning, my first film released I was like it was not the response to the box office that I cared about, it was response to me. Now it’s shifted to the response to the film. In the beginning it was all about me as an actor, now it’s about the film.  

    GJ: I know that the music launch is very close to your heart and it had to do with deeper faith. So what propelled you to an international launch? 

    PC: Like I said, I like doing different things, I don’t like being in the norm, what is expected of me is something what I wouldn’t love doing, it’s very boring. So Music was not a plan, universal approached me I didn’t think of singing. They were really like try try you can do it so I gave it a shot very exasperatedly and it seemed interesting to me and then I thought why not give it a shot. 

    Salim Suleiman knew I sang and Universal was looking for Bollywood actors who were artist. So they suggested my name.

    GJ: How do you see your music career going forward because we are very excited about Piggy Chops in the future. You have taken it to the next level, you are not just doing Bollywood music but you are an international pop singer now. 

    PC: Well, growth is one which we all aspire to do, grow and be better at whatever we can, I think I was trying that as well when I was doing that song and I just hope that it’s something new. 

    GJ: Are you trying to do any Hollywood movies in the future?

    PC: I am just very organic about my life, I really never think what my future will be. I was thrown into something, which was so new so I don’t mind being thrown into anything. 

    GJ: You are effortless and so comfortable in your skin, where do you get it from?

    PC: It’s a façade! 

    GJ: You are one of the sexiest women; I want to ask you what makes a woman desirable.

    PC: Confidence. When you are yourself and you are ok with it, which I think most women don’t have, so it’s unique. 

    GJ: Tell me your idea of a quintessential man?

    PC: Somebody I can respect, somebody with integrity, somebody with conviction. These are the qualities I have, I am a very independent girl so I’d want to be with somebody who can reign me I guess. 

    GJ: You are the brand ambassador of so many brands. How do you choose to go for them. Is it commercial or any kind of underlying thoughts?

    PC: There has to be a brand fit, like I wouldn’t be brand ambassador of a health portal for example because it doesn’t make sense because I am not a healthy person, I am not a fitness freak, I eat rubbish all day, I eat whenever I remember. I like to be involved in brands that I believe in. 

    GJ: How was Khatron Ki Khiladi because that was an important television stint. How was that experience and what got you to participate in it?

    PC: I’ve never done television and Fear Factor has been one of my favourite shows so to do it and host it I was really cool plus it needed only 25 days of my time plus it was Rio. I could do all those funky stunts and bikes and I could not do it. Plus, I had never done TV, I have never seen women spearheading their own shows, that was another challenge to see whether I could do that. And it did really well, so I was very happy. 

    GJ: Tell me something that the world doesn’t know about Priyanka Chopra?

    PC: If they don’t know it, I don’t want to tell them. 

    GJ: Is there something you would want the world to know in your 6,000 word write-up?

    PC: A lot of people think that just because you are an actor and in the glamour business it’s a very easy life. Like people take that with a lot of and I don’t mean physically, I don’t mean being on a plane 300 days a year or having to always look pretty and presentable but the kind of pressure that comes with being a public person, that’s really hard. My advice to anybody coming in to show business would be the advice my mom gave me when I came to show business and I really lived by it and survived it. Not being from the film industry. Nothing is do or die, today we are very lucky in the 21st century to be living in a world where we can switch professions, we can be whoever we want, we can put our fingers on a map and eyes there, the world is your oyster. So don’t be restricted in a bubble, you are born with wings. 

    GJ: How have you evolved as a person, in this public journey?

    PC: I have become tougher, I can deal with a lot more but I’ve also become a little bit more emotional.

    GJ: How spiritual would you say you are?

    PC: I am more spiritual than religious, I do believe in a supreme power and I do believe that your life has been written out for you. It’s just the degrees which vary, what you do with every situations in life. 

    GJ: What’s the favourite part of your day?

    PC: The 45 minutes before I am going to sleep -- sitting in between my parents and watching some soap opera that my mom is watching, eating dinner in bed, reading in bed. The two minutes to collect my thoughts of the entire day is my favourite part. 

    GJ: Would you ever like to start a wellness retreat?

    PC: I would, because I love spas, that kind of a wellness retreat yes, but you cannot force a diet on people. I really believe in eating, I am a Punjabi and I love my food. But I love spas. A wellness retreat means feeling well. My wellness retreat would be different where you are not given dal and sukha sabji to eat.

    GJ: If you had 3 days off, how would you like to spend them?

    PC: If I did I’d vegetate in my bed, I’ll watch movies in my bed. Chat with friends. That is all that I would do. I’d clean my cupboard. 

    GJ: Some aspirations that you haven’t been able to meet because of your time schedule… 

    PC: Spending more time with my family, I don’t get to do that. But I try and do it as much as I can. 

    GJ: What about the film fraternity appeals to you so much?

    PC: It’s my home, I don’t know anything else. I started here when I was 17, I have never known anybody else, I just knew film business. 

    GJ: What frustrates you the most about it?

    PC: The constant public glare and the speculation. Judgmental behavior by people, living under the microscope constantly to put it in more clichéd terms, that is frustrating. 

    But again it’s the price you pay t be where you are. You are in the limelight and you cannot say you don’t want to be recognized or be in the limelight. If you say so then you are lying. It’s the choices that you take of how much you want people to know about you. It’s the choice you make with yourself 

    GJ: What about loneliness?

    PC: That’s the last thing that happens to me.

    Priyanka Chopra

  • Sania Mirza

    A keen student while in school, Sania Mirza had a difficult time choosing between medicine and tennis. Finally, when she did make that decision, there was no looking back. Taking on the world as a doubles player today, Sania declares that three surgeries and a marriage later, she could have easily retired into an easy life, but that would have been a betrayal to herself and to her love for the game. For the last eight years, she doesn’t remember a single morning when she has woken up without a pain, but the fighter is far away from giving up.  

    GJ: How has your journey been different from your less successful peers?

    SM: I think a lot of things go into becoming a tennis player. We had no woman from this country in the big league. I was lucky to become as successful as I am today. I loved playing. I love the sport, and I love working hard. My body doesn’t feel that it’s 26 years old, my body feels that it is 40 because of the surgeries and the injuries I have put it through. I used to be in the gym for seven to eight hours a day, after which I would come home and do home work. I’d try to sit for exams; I did normal schooling up to the twelfth grade. I finished my schooling, did my boards and everything and then I joined university. I majored in Psychology for a year and then I had to choose between Wimbledon and giving my exams. I chose Wimbledon, and after that there was no looking back. Going to Wimbledon was a dream come true.

    GJ: Do you think entering the tennis domain was a gamble for you?

    SM: I think it’s a gamble for everyone.There isn’t much money in tennis, and not everyone can raise the amount needed in order to be successful. You have to be very lucky to have that. When you are playing the juniors you don’t make any money, but you travel about 30 weeks a year and spend around Rs 50-60 lakhs in that time. When you play in junior Wimbledon, you don’t make anything. It’s obviously a world sport in which almost 200 countries play. So you have to travel to very far off places. Therefore, you invest a lot of money without any guarantee of a return. There are many people who gamble and nothing comes out of it. There were many other girls who played with me, but none of them made it. It’s a calculated gamble you have to take, but you also have to be practical. Fortunately, I did very well right from the start, and that kept us hopeful.

    GJ: What kept you going through your early days?

    SM: I love tennis, I love competing, the smell of winning. I am generally a competitive person.It’s very easy for me to say that I have fame, I have money, I have a perfect husband, so I could easily not work hard any more. The average tennis career is very short. After three surgeries I could have said that. But I’ve won the Grand Slam this year, proving that I like to fight back hardest when people think that I am out for good. It’s this spirit that kept me going right from the start.

    GJ: Can you tell me a little about your childhood?

    SM: My parents were not very pushy, though they did want me to play at the highest levels. I loved school and I was very good at my schoolwork. I didn’t want to miss school or matches—that was the biggest conflict I faced in those days.At one point, I wanted to be a doctor, so one of the biggest decisions I made was to miss school in order to pursue tennis, thus giving up on that dream. I was always the one who wanted to go practice, and it helps to know that this career was entirely my own decision.

    GJ: How do you manage to project such a true-to-life image, even before the media?

    SM: I think a lot of sportspersons stay very true to their nature because it’s very difficult to hide your true self in a competitive arena. I feel that the tennis court is a place where I am completely myself. I don’t care how I look or behave. We all talk to ourselves and its considered normal on the tennis court. I think your true self comes out when you are competing. 

    GJ: How is Sania on the tennis court compared to the Sania at an exhibition or gallery opening? 

    SM: When I am on the tennis court, I don’t hold back in terms of how I behave. If I am at an exhibition or gallery opening I will not be talking to myself. There are so many emotions involved in a two hour tennis match. There’s frustration, happiness, sadness, you miss a ball and you are annoyed, you win a point and you cheer yourself up. There are just so many emotions involved. I am generally a very emotional person; you tend to see me full of emotions on a tennis court. Off the tennis court I hold back those emotions. I am reserved around people I don’t know.

    GJ: You’ve said that though you are 26, you think like a 40-year old. What made you say that?

    SM: I have friends who are 25 and 26 and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Here I am, talking about what I want to do as my second career! It’s a very different space that I am in, it’s been a very different life that I have lived. It’s been extremely eventful and full for someone of my age.

    GJ: How do you prepare for a tournament?

    SM: We travel about 30 weeks a year, so we don’t get much time to ourselves, or to relax. Last year people were asking me whether I was preparing for the Olympics.  I would say no because the Australian Open was coming up before that! As tennis players, we prepare on a daily basis. 

    GJ: What was running through your head when you got that trophy? How did life change after that?

    SM: That was 2003. I was in disbelief. After that, all hell broke loose. I suddenlyreceived all this recognition; I seemed to become famous overnight. My dad was here and he would tell me over the phone that the media was not leaving the house and that reporters were parked outside. It was his first experience with them as well. When I came back there were hundreds of people waiting to receive me at the airport. That was my first taste of stardom and I was a little overwhelmed. 

    GJ: Was that the turning point of your career? 

    SM: It was a major turning point, in terms of me getting recognition and stardom. But I had played the semifinals of the French Open two weeks before that—again, a first time feat for an Indian woman, but no one talked about it. When I was 12, I won the nationals under-14 and under-16 in Delhi and I got my first sponsorship with Adidas. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a professional tennis player. In my head, that was the turning point. 

    GJ: What were the biggest crises that you experienced professionally?

    SM: Every time I have been hurt, I have faced a crisis. People don’t realise that when you are hurt, it’s a lot easier to heal physically than it is emotionally. As tennis players or as athletes you have to learn to trust your body again. The first major injury that I had was my knee; I tore it when I was among the top 30 in the world. I was in Doha, I played my match, I hurt my knee, but I continued and won the match. It kept getting worse and the next morning, I couldn’t step out. I almost collapsed trying to go to the bathroom. One day later I was in surgery. It took me three months to come back from that. I remember the feeling of being too scared to move on, not because I was scared for my body but I wasn’t sure whether my knee would give in again.I don’t think people realise how difficult it is to trust your body after something like that. Physically you can work out and become fit again but you need to recover mentally as well. For the last seven to eight years I don’t remember waking up in the morning without pain.

    In 2008, when I injured my wrist, I couldn’t comb my hair or pick up a fork or handle simple things like that. I was in serious depression, thinking my career is over. I tried to think of other options, other things I could do, anything to keep from sitting in my room all day and crying. It’s the worst feeling in the world when you have to sacrifice the things you love. It was a horrific feeling. This was during the first Olympics. But I came through that and I won my slam afterwards, in 2009.

    GJ: Having an Indian body is a great disadvantage compared to Russian and other western athletes who are much more strongly built. What were the advantages that you were working with?

    SM: I have a hyper mobile body which is very flexible. I am double jointed, and this allows me to use my wrist in ways that many others can’t. All my injuries have been joint related, I’ve never had a muscle tear or anything else. This is a major advantage, in my opinion.

    GJ: Wasn’t it after 2007 that you said you would never again play on Indian soil?

    SM: That was a rumour. I have clarified my stance many times, but people don’t pay attention because that story doesn’t sell as well. All I said was that I was mentally very exhausted that particular week. In 2010, I played the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and won 2 medals. After that, they’ve never had a tournament in India. 

    GJ: What do you have to say about the Leander-Mahesh controversy? 

    SM: Mahesh is my closest friend, but the fact is that that at that time he didn’t behave the way he was expected to. I didn’t want to make a big issue of what had happened, but the fact is, I don’t like being taken for granted. If I am taken for granted you will hear from me—and that’s what happened. I won a Grand Slam with a person I was playing the whole year with two weeks prior to the controversy, but no one called to congratulate me. Rohan got a phone call to ask whom he wanted to play with, Mahesh and Leander got phone calls and the funny thing was that they wanted the medal only from the mixed doubles which I was playing and no one even called me to ask me. My problem was not with who I was playing with; it was the way it was being handled. My commitment was not to a person but the country and I made that clear. 

    GJ: Did this affect the way in which you played the Olympics?

    SM: I think we were all very disturbed but I don’t think we can blame anything on that, really. As tennis players and professionals we are supposed to block it out. I know it sounds harsh but that’s how we are supposed to be. I pray that I don’t see any other sport go through the things that our sport went through. It showed tennis in such poor light, especially at a time when the prestige tennis was growing in the country.

    GJ: Do you think glass ceilings still exist in the sports fraternity in India?

    SM: At that time, they most definitely did. Now I’m not so sure.

    GJ: You’ve played against the world’s number ones. What was it like to win against them?

    SM: It taught me to believe that everyone is beatable. I played Hingis in Kolkata for the first time and we played the semi finals before a packed house of 18000 people. She played an outstanding match. I came off of the court, knowing there was nothing I could have done differently. But three days later, we went to Korea where I beat her. Six months later, we played in America and I won again. She retired two months after that. You can’t be judged over one or two matches. I am in my ninth year now; I have finished seven out of eight years among the top 100 in the world. That’s what I should to be judged on. 

    GJ: How has being a celebrity changed you?

    SM: If I were not a celebrity, I think I would behave the exact same way I am behaving today. Maybe that works against me. A lot of people change when they become celebrities, but I still go to a coffee shop and hang out with my friends, just as I did in school. I am not going to change that. I have always been true to myself and my family and I don’t ever want to be any other way.

    GJ: What made you decide to get married so early?

    SM: I have been in the limelight for ten years now. I grew up in the limelight and people have seen me grow from a chubby girl whose face was full of pimples to what I am now. So there was never really a timeline in my head. Maybe it’s a cliché to say this, but I felt it was the right time and I have no regrets now.

    GJ: How has marriage changed you as a professional?

    SM: The fact that I am married to someone who plays sport at the elite level and who understands the pressures that go with it really helps both of us. When you lose a match you don’t have to explain things to the other person. They know that they just need to back off and stay away for a couple of hours and after that, things are going to be fine. We met, we fell in love and we wanted to spend our lives together and it was really as simple as that. People used to ask me whether I considered the fact that he was from Pakistan. It never struck me or him that we were from countries that didn’t get along. That was not just how we were brought up. 

    I wanted to stop playing when I was 24. I felt that the moment I wake up in the morning and don’t feel like going to the gym or practicing, I will know it’s time to say I am done. I thought that after 24, I would want to have a normal life, go out with my friends. But things changed, and today I am almost 26 and I still want to play. I thought I wouldn’t want to play after I got married but it’s been nearly three years now and I still want to play. I think with time your thought process changes a lot.

    GJ: What do you think sets you apart from other couples?

    SM: I don’t know how other couples behave together. Actually, I am a very simple person and so is he. When we are outside, we are always conscious of ourselves, of how we look because you know someone is always watching. So when we are alone, or at home, we just like to be very simple. Neither of us is huge on partying; we are happy to stay at home and watch a movie. We don’t drink or smoke so that kind of helps as well. 

    GJ: How do you manage your schedules?

    SM: That is probably the toughest part of being together. My traveling has increased because of him; when I don’t travel for myself I travel with him. It’s a lot easier for me to accompany him as mine is an individual sport, I can pick and choose my own schedule. But his is a team sport, which means he gets little choice in where and when he goes. When I don’t travel for myself I join him, so I am hardly at home. 

    GJ: How do you handle your career and your marriage simultaneously?

    SM: We just go with the flow; we are both pretty easy going. I think in a marriage like we have, we have to be, because if we are not then we will start having issues because our schedules are always haywire. We never know what’s going to happen and if we are not relaxed about it, we’ll have a fight almost every other day. 

    GJ: What do you like the most about Shoaib?

    SM:  He is extremely patient. If we have fights, nine out of ten of them are started by me, and he barely argues. This has helped me calm down.

    GJ: You are a very religious person, aren’t you?

    SM: I am a believer, I pray, I do the basic stuff. People seem to think that if you are Muslim you have to be perfectly religious; you can’t be a Muslim and do namaaz and still play tennis and pay attention to your looks. They don’t understand that you can balance both.

    GJ: How did it affect you emotionally when the fatwa was released against you? 

    SM: A lot of that furor was media-driven. As a Muslim, if you ask me if I am allowed to wear short skirts and play and I would say I am not, but just because I do, does that mean I am not a Muslim? No, it doesn’t mean that. Maybe I am not doing exactly what the Quran says I should, but I do follow the basic rules. I fast, I pray, I follow the most important tenets of Islam.

    In this part of the world, people are very quick to point fingers at others, regardless of what they are doing or not doing. The media makes of our statements what it will, conveniently ignoring our clarifications. That’s whyI am writing a book, so that people hear what I have to say about my own life, for once.

    GJ: How do you feel about your amazing success?

    SM: It feels great to be so honoured and appreciated. I didn’t aim at it, really; stardom was not something I was ever enticed by. I loved the sport, and I wasn’t playing tennis to become a star.

    GJ: Is it true that you are starting an academy?

    SM: Yes, the plans are underway to open one in Hyderabad. One of our main goals is to try and get kids from rural areas because people have this misconception that tennis is only for the elite, like golf. When I started playing tennis, I used to pay 500 rupees for a month of training. I think most people can afford 500 rupees. If you want to play at the level that I have played you might need sponsors, but that is the case for most sports.

    GJ: What would your role be in the academy?

    SM: I would love to help the kids out whenever I am around. We have already hired coaches who have been top Indian tennis players and we are trying to get more on board. My dad’s going to be there almost full time. We will try and have international coaches and players at the academy every month. They can share their experiences, educated people here on what it takes to make it big in the tennis world.

    GJ: What is sportsmanship to you?

    SM: I think sportsmanship is about giving everything for that win but in a fair way. You shouldn’t be afraid to win or lose, as long as you do it on a fair basis.

    GJ: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

    SM: I’d definitely want to have a family.

    GJ: What do you see as your biggest contribution to the Indian sports fraternity?

    SM: I think the academy is the biggest contribution that I am going to make. I don’t have the support from the government—it’s all my own investment, including the land. I am going to make this dream come true on my own. 

    Sania Mirza


    The czarina of the world of law in the country, tales of her round-the-clock availability are legendary. But ask Zia Mody if she would do anything different if she got a second chance, and it would be finding a semblance of work-life balance. Most corporate greats have her on speed-dial and hers is one of the most trusted names in the business, but getting to this point has been one roller-coaster ride, even though she may have enjoyed every bit of it.

    GJ: How does it feel to have taken the family legacy forward?  

    ZM: I feel satisfied, I feel good. I think that that my father’s preference would have been for me to remain in the field of barrister, the council that is more elitist but I think I’m happy where I am. It has been a very interesting journey with a lot of hard work and struggle, lot of times when you feel you can’t take one more hour of work but also. In a sense we, the firm, all my other partners and myself, have been very lucky to be at the right time and at the right place as we were growing together when India was just opening up in the 90s. We were part of a landscape where the regulations were changing weekly, fortnight, monthly and had to keep the pace as it was a new practice. A bunch of 12 to 15 lawyers had started and so, I think that was where the excitement and the satisfaction lay.

    GJ: What kind of work life balance would you recommend to aspiring lawyers? 

    ZM: The problem is that I have no work life balance and that was a part of my life problem. We women want it all and there’s no reason for us not to. But would I have done things a bit differently in hindsight, probably yes. I would have may be de-prioritized my work a bit , not let it consume me as much as it has and spent more time with family. But then would I have achieved what I have achieved? That is the constant thought. I had a great family life that supported me, had a mother-in-law who took over our house and children. But I always had guilt. I was also lucky that I had the infrastructure support and a husband who was so comfortable in himself and that I think a lot of young women have arguments over insecurity about what their husbands think to fit in their lives. But for us it was a partnership from day one and nobody has taken as much pride in me as my husband. So I was lucky. I also made sure that I could do the best. I tried to reduce the guilt as much as I could, I tried to balance as much as I could but I know I could not keep the balance.

    GJ: Of all the M&A activities that you worked with, which has been the most inspiring for you?

    ZM: I think more than inspiring, one of the most interesting ones for me was the one involving my most hot deals, which was with Tatas. They were acquiring a company called Natsteel. It was just fantastic; we were thrown into situation where we had to coordinate with lawyers from five-seven countries. We were learning as we were going along, the client was learning as we were going along, it was all about protecting the client in the new international space, what exposure could he take and what could he not take, what were the financing terms which would come to haunt us when we took over, what were all the litigations that were sitting there which we would have to handle… I think it was such a partnership when we worked together with Tata Steel and I never forgot about it. We had great folks with the Tata team. We’ve done many more deals with Tata after that like the Diwoo deal in Korea, we did Corous, we did Jaguar; it’s been great, they are great clients.

    GJ: What about M&A that inspired you to pursue it professionally?

    ZM: I was doing M&A in New York and so, I was already trained in that. And of course, when India opened up, every MNC wanted a M&A. Everybody was just coming through the door and the practice was very naturally M&A and so, that just grew and developed. I would say 60% of our work today is M&A. Most of our partners do M&A.

    GJ: What are the core values of AZB and how do you see the firm 10 years from now?

    ZM: I would hope it would be larger, carrying out the processes of institutionalization where people recognize the brand first, and it is less individual centric; growing in the domains of towering areas, practicing with competitors in our core areas, delivering international top quality service and mentoring and training the youngsters that come through our system, and continuing to have the super set of partners that we do, the partners taking on their lead and taking it to the next level as they are already in the process of doing because you can’t grow without all of us putting our heads together. 

    GJ: Do you remember when you developed a keen interest in law?

    ZM: I think obviously that when you are younger, you don’t realize the extent of the achievements of your parents; so, to that extent, we very much took my father’s gravitas and dominance in the field for granted, we didn’t understand the path breaking work that he was doing. Everyday was a fun conversation at the dinner table. He was very often talking to his solicitors on the matters for the next day and what we would hear is only one side of the conversation, which always sounded fascinating to me as a child. I was by nature argumentative and loved debate and it was a very natural assimilation into wanting to be a lawyer and there was no soul searching of what will I be and what will I become. At the end of the day, I just grew up in an atmosphere and did my law naturally, came back and practiced here and there, and that’s how it happened. 

    GJ: You have been quoted as saying that it was your mother who encouraged you take up law. Can you tell us more about her?

    ZM: My mother is a wonderful type paper personality. She got married at 17 and had me when she was 20. We often tease her that if it wasn’t for the early marriage, she would have been a noble prize winner. My mother has lived and projected a lot of her dreams through us and in hindsight, in extremely positive way, we are all committed, we are all professionals, we all want to excel in what we are doing. She was always been very clear that I was the eldest daughter, we were biased by our religion, which is ruthless on its equality of gender, and so, my mother always assumed that I would get an equal opportunity on the dining table, in life on the Sorabjee family and I think, to a large extent, she was an influencing factor on my father and on us as siblings that you know all of us had to achieve and there was no reason for us to be treated differently on accound of our gender.

    GJ: What part of your personality would you say has been shaped by your father?  

    ZM: Not much, I think my mother shaped my personality more. I think dad left the harder moments of childhood to mom, I am sure he was talking to her in the bedroom; but I think, sometimes he felt awkward about discussing certain things with children because probably he couldn’t relate to us. I think that what I’ve imbibed from his personality would be the passion for the law, the ruthless commitment to detail and always being prepared. So, these sort of things you know was something I leart and hence, I was always ready for my court case. Whenever I went to the court, I was always ready so that nobody could catch me making a mistake. My father would always tell me to prepare for the court as if I was going to argue and he would always say that if a senior is sick or unwell, that’s one opportunity you grab; you don’t get scared but instead, you say I ‘m ready to argue. So, you always prepare as if you are ready to argue your case.

    GJ: You studied at two of the most iconic universities – Cambridge and Harvard; what was your experience like?

    ZM: I loved Cambridge, it gave me a sense of working in a tutorial system, it was a small system of lawyers that worked. You got engaged with the tutors after college. It was a lot of one to one, a lot of questioning, a lot of debate and a lot of learning and a lot of guiding and mentoring. Harvard was fabulous because it was a one-year programme where you met people from everywhere in the world. It was not a critical part of your studies to kill yourself for that. But you know, there the system was that you had to read up 300 pages overnight and come ready to class, a very didactic way of approaching it. And the sheer pressure of giving the wrong answer in front of everybody kept you going. There again, interacting with great professors, just seeing the things they’ve done outside the school, outside the college and friends have remained with me till today – a wonderful set of international lawyers who all came together for that year. They are all good friends, good professionals, and fellow colleagues who have the same sort of commitment, who have been to the same sort of school, same sort of benchmarking. Those were the wonderful years of my life. And of course, they defined me as a person. Because you know you are so exposed, you understand that what you want to practice is international law and not necessarily just Indian law, but with the issues facing different countries as well. You are not cocooned, you are not isolated, you understand the economic impact on transactions etc. So, they were great years. 

    GJ: You started your practice as a corporate associate with Becker and McKinsey. What is it that you have you carried forward from the US experience that we see as a working style in the AZB Partners today? 

    ZM: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s just my style because a lot of the partners have brought their styles in; there are a lot of best practices we picked up from everybody. But I would think that what Becker McKinsey taught me for the five years when I was there was to be very practical. We were not asked to put up hours and hours of useless memorandum. Giving esoteric opinions that would never be practical; giving views which would occur in 1% of the situation. So, I learnt that the bottom-line approach is important. Second, and I am not sure that it is only applicable to Becker and McKinsey or America, is the honesty of approach. No one can do opinions, not just trying to please the client for the sake of it. That your reputation is more important than your client and that if you lose a client to save your reputation then that’s fine. So, you know the importance of a letter head, the importance of being able to justify things when they go wrong because that is when you get tested, that is when things go wrong. When things go right, every thing’s fine but when the trouble starts, can you put a hand on your heart and say that I believed this, I still believe it and I will defend it for you? You could be wrong but, was it honest for you? Was it a view that you were capable of showing to the client, your thought process, so that’s clearly one of the things and that the other thing was commitment to knowledge. Couldn’t wait till the next week, can’t remember what happened in the last week, had to know yesterday, because that’s what made you definingly different and that’s what AZB hopes to do. You know that all the partners are committed to the same thing, excellence in knowledge and excellence in delivery and I think that it has been our USP that fortunately all the partners have the same DNA, they are proud of the firm and they all want to be passionate about it.

    GJ: Business work has titled you that as the undisputed czarina of the AZB world, how do you take that and what is your sense of achievement?

    ZM: I am very happy that I am a czarina but I think basically what is important is that people can perceive that important space that is obviously not the top space but one of the top spaces; that can be held by a woman, that gives a lot of messaging to young women out there, that they can achieve, they can make it there, you know it’s all within their grasp and it’s how much you want to go there and get it.

    GJ: What would you say was your most challenging period?

    ZM: I think it was probably after my first daughter was born, just because my second daughter came very soon after that. A lot of work had to be done those days, parenting, fairly new marriage, coming back from New York, settling into a male gender environment... I think those were years when I really had to struggle. 

    GJ: You have done a lot of CSR activities in the educational space and recently the right to education was proposed by the Supreme Court. If you could share your thoughts on the same…

    ZM: It will have a huge impact because I am not sure all of it will be positively binding. I think now everybody is trying to get minority status but I think it will have its social issues… I don’t know how to define that frankly. Because it’s an encroachment on the rights of the priority class how can you have a neighbourhood priority, I think a lot of it will be simplistic and I think a lot of it will have its negative fall outs. Some people can’t just cope what happens.

    GJ: What are the immediate challenges for the legal fraternity?

    ZM: I think quality. And I think that very thin pipeline of new students, just not enough good graduates coming out of the system. Numbers are not the problems, it’s the quality. I mean instead of having 45000 graduates a year, we should have 5000 but good quality. That again makes sure that the access to the law is available to many more people. Today, it’s thought of as expensive or you have a lawyer who is so overworked that he neglects some of his cases. The evenness is not available and that is the problem.

    GJ: What are the essential qualities that a young lawyer must have to join AZB?

    ZM:One, I think is the complete passion to law, second is the willingness to be honest all the time in the research, in the advice and in the analysis. A willingness to work hard and just sustaining your passion for the profession and wanting to be a part of the team member in an atmosphere where you know you are going to get top quality work and then learning and once you get enough experience then delivering it back to the AZB system and mentoring.  

    GJ: Your clients talk about your Iconic 24/7 availability. I want to know where do you get the energy from? 

    ZM: God and my husband’s grace. Just being lucky really. Tend to do something in fewer hours, sustaining the passion, wanting to be excited about new things everyday, interacting with partners who fill me up with all the good things that they have been doing, not as much in the delivery system as I used to be, they are the new future so, the whole day goes by very quickly but sleeping till 3 am or sometimes even 5 am hopefully, it will change.

    GJ: You’ve also said that one of your icons is Ruth Ginsburg – an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. What is it about her that you admire so much?

    ZM: She is fiercely intellectual. She is one of the most incisive women of her generation and she made her seat on the court in a comparatively short time. The thing that I admire about her is she is very emphatic and comes across as a very fair, just human being. She is going to serve as an icon to many American women lawyers. And that itself is the important message that she is giving out. And I think she sees that as a sense of responsibility also. 

    GJ: You are an icon yourself - Do you feel a sense of responsibility?

    ZM: I do and I try and fulfill it I do as much as I can. I think people do look up to me and ask me for guidance, especially women and I try and give them honest advice everytime and understand what their issues are simply because I have gone through them. I am older and wiser now and so I can look back and advice them now. 

    GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman?

    ZM: Passionate, high IQ, a yearning to learn every day and I think that at the end of the day, a fair and just human being. 

    GJ: Would you recommend lawyers or that you get involved in CSR activities like filing PILs to improve the law?

    ZM: Yes, I think young lawyers are best suited for this. They have more energy, more passion and more time. I did a lot of PILs myself when I was young, which got me noticed in court. A lot of PILs cannot afford senior lawyers, I mean junior lawyers kept on arguing. We got the visibility, but I think that absolutely good causes to support are very important because of the feeling of wanting to give back has to be inculcated from the beginning. If after doing 20 years in the law – you have never done pro-bono - you’ll never get back because you’ve lost the ability to.

    GJ: You are the follower of the Bahai faith. Can you tell us the significance it holds in your life?

    ZM: As a member of the Bahai faith, we don’t have priests; we read our religious teachings ourselves. We cannot be Bahais before 21 and so, it’s a religion by choice. For me it was a commitment that I made and what is the commitment? To lead our lives according to the principles of our prophets. Now who can lead lives by all the principles, then we’d become prophets. The goal is to say sorry when we are wrong, know when you are wrong and try and improve. To pray everyday, to know everything is a work of his grace and not your work and you are just his instrument. That he puts the power through you if he chooses to and what he gives, he can take away and therefore the continuous awareness that if you are arrogant, you are no longer a good human being and that the sense of the achievement has two aspects, one is what you did for yourself with your own efforts and one that you were guided by a greater power. So believing, in the faith and equality of genders, to pray in the language you understand and communicate directly with God. To work on your faults all the time, to believe in the soul and afterlife, your balance sheet ultimately is not in your bank; to be a little scared of God is a good thing, love of God has to be coupled with the fear of God . One regret has been that I have not been able to do much of bahai work. To give back and do what the faith tells you to, enhance communities to give your expertise away that can shape many lives. So, my biggest fear now is that when I am called I might get fired. 

    GJ: If you had three days off how would you like to spend that?

    ZM: When I do get time off my husband and I get away for a long weekend and just chill, spend time with each other. Talking, sleeping, eating good food, trying to catch up on movies, sometimes trying to get the kids to come with us. Now the three of them don’t want to be with us as much as we would want to be with them. I think, just you know letting my hair down and not being as wound up as I am now for the rest of the day or month.

    GJ: What are the activities you’d like to participate in after retirement?

    ZM: Travel, I love traveling, spending more time being a Bahaivian, reading on the times that I have lost. Being as much with the family as I can, all the mundane things.

    GJ: Your favourite book?

    ZM: I love Lord of the Rings, Fountainhead, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, History of Civilization by the Durands. I like history.

    GJ: Of all the legendary cases that your father has worked on, which one is the most memorable? 

    ZM: I think for dad probably one of the most favourable cases was the Keshavananda Bharati case. For me, the main cases which helped shape the way the Supreme Court had thought on the issues of fundamental rights, citizenship, rights which have been deprived over the years - those are the seminal cases that I think most of the Indian lawyers of this generation will remember.



    She stormed into a science stream that had never seen a woman on its records before. Armed with a degree in brewing, when she came back to India looking for a job, she was told there weren’t any suited to women. In quintessentially Kiran style she promptly went ahead and started a business of her own. Today she is not only one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, but also ensures she provides ample job opportunities for women scientists everywhere. And that essentially sums up Kiran Mazumdar Shaw – a woman who refuses to take no for an answer and plays a seminal part in showing women their true potential.

    GJ: Would you like to talk about or give some anecdotes of your struggles?

    KMS: When I was buying some of my raw materials from various vendors, they would feel very uncomfortable dealing with a woman and they would always tell me why you don’t send your manager, we’ll discuss the prices with your manager. These were traditional people who felt uncomfortable having women in their shops. I told them you have to deal with me. I had to educate them and I felt that in a way it helped me for them to respect women. If you can negotiate a strong business with them, they will respect you. So ultimately, I think that I took these weaknesses and converted them to my strength. Women should realize that ultimately in the economic world if you are the buyer then you have a strong position. 

    GJ: What are your success mantras?

    KMS: My success mantras are very simple. You have to be dedicated, determined and you must not give up and you must not have the fear of failure. Because I feel that a lot of unsuccessful people give up too easily because they fear failure and in this society we actually stigmatize people who fail. That’s not good because people will fail and you learn from your failure and you can succeed by learning from your failures. That’s the societal change we got to bring about in India. I have failed many times, but it has never deterred me, it made me stronger.

    GJ: Your idea of a quintessential woman – How would you like to define it?

    KMS: A quintessential woman to me is the one who is aware of her status in society and contributes in its change. This change indicates a positive impact in key areas of a community or society’s traditional needs and values.

    GJ: Keeping in mind your philanthropic ventures and the civic activities you are part of, how have you evolved since the age of 25 when you first began?

    KMS: My basic values have remained very steadfast. Basically, I have always been someone who wanted to bring about a positive change in Indian society and the Indian perspective. When I was building Biocon, I felt that a woman’s role in the society was not up to the level that it ought to be. During those days, I felt that women were relegated to second class citizenship where they did not have the courage to find an equitable social development opportunity in this country like men have. I felt that we were kind of stereotyped into what we could do and what we shouldn’t do. This very thinking towards women, I found it very insulting. I felt that women are intelligent and educated enough to succeed in any field and we are not given the opportunities. I believe we are even denied the self confidence that we can do any work with success. So, I felt why shouldn’t I take the lead role? I had a supportive family and especially my father who believed strongly in women’s role in society. With this kind of backing and the kind of education I received through school, I had a sense of self belief and self-worth and I felt that I should play that role. And therefore, when I set about my career path, I was always very daring, I always wanted to do something different. I wanted to attack the male bastion so to speak?

    After pursuing a brewing career, my father said that why don’t you become a brew master? My father said that there is nothing called a male bastion. You should rather penetrate the male bastion very easily. So, I went ahead with brewing and then I came back very confident that I was a very accomplished brewer. But after reaching India, I found that that the Indian brewing industry was not ready for a brewer and I was very let down. However, I am somebody who wouldn’t give up, and therefore I started my own business in Biotechnology and that’s where I wanted to prove to people that women should not be looked down or denied those opportunities because of a gender prejudice or archaic mindset. That’s why I said that I want to show the people that I am fit to be a brewer and much more than that. I pursued an entrepreneurial path where I set up a biotech company and was determined to be the crusader for career-oriented women. What used to pain me a lot was that women scientists were sitting at home and especially in a country where we were really looking for people in science to do more for this country and I wondered why women aren’t doing their bit. So, I created this company where I wanted women scientists to work and innovate and research and build value. That’s what I did at Biocon. I created this scientific environment for all scientists, not only for women, but I felt that women scientists should be able to come and work here. I realized that in science and technology there were a lot of women, at the higher and university level education and yet, they would all get PSEs and masters degrees and even PhDs and then sit at home. So, I just felt that it was very wrong for a country like India to waste this very valuable resource. I feel gratified that I have built Asia’s largest biotech company and today, we are recognized as amongst the biotech employers in the world, and we are the only Asian company in the top 20 list. Today, we are the 7th largest biotech employers in the world and of that, a large percentage are women. Though I know that I have a long way to go, at least there is recognition today, I am not just a woman business leader, I am a business leader in the country. Today, I am the voice of Biotech, I am the voice of business in India and I am serving several platforms including the PM’s council, US India CEO forum and many others.

    Apart from that, I work very closely with the government where I am leading Karnataka’s vision group on Biotechnology. I have just been invited to join the International Advisory Council of the Malaysian Biotechnology and Science in India, Innovation Council, so I really realize that if you want to and unless you get over this gender barrier, which is really something in people’s minds, you can do a lot. And I find a lot of women whom you have featured in your book are women who have basically broken out of the mould, broken out of the mindset and are changing this world. I think that’s what is important. 

    GJ: How did you develop the skill set to manage this huge empire?

    KMS: I think you use the word psychological mind track and that’s the real phrase you should use for all women. That they are psychologically caught in this trap and that they can’t do things that they need help for both financial and otherwise, and I think you have to have the strength of your conviction. I had no money, I had no sugar daddies, I had nobody to help me along the way but I had this conviction and the passion to build this company and when you have that total dedication and determination to build something, you can do it and I think all great entrepreneurs around the world have started with very little. It’s just an idea, the conviction that I can do it, and that I can build companies. And I think, there are many entrepreneurs who have done that in our very country. I happen to be a woman but I think there are many men who have done it in our country and why should women feel any different. Whether you look at this country or any other part of the world, those examples that stand upon are the people who have taken on that challenge. You got to have a sense of purpose and I find that most women get trapped in this as they are doing it either because they are fronting their husbands or families or whatever so they don’t have that sense of purpose or that they are doing it just to edge out a living. Then, they feel threatened because they feel that it’s too high risk. So, whenever you do it because you feel responsible for others and you fail for everyone, then it becomes a problem. But if you are doing it for yourself, where you are trying to build something for yourself and your responsibility is your own then you can do it. I took on this responsibility of building Biocon where I shouldered every risk and responsibility that went with it. So, if it failed it was my failure, if I was taking a risk it was me who was taking the risk and if it were responsibilities, I was taking the responsibilities, but I was determined to succeed. It gives you a different sort of orientation, where you don’t get intimidated for not having a financial support or any other support. You do it because you are going to get that support no matter what happens. I had a lot of problems along the way, I couldn’t get financial support, I couldn’t get people to work for me because I was a woman, but I overcame that because I felt that I will be able to convince people that I can do it. I can convince people to invest in me. Women have to understand that as entrepreneurs no matter what they are doing, you got to able to convince people to invest in you. And when you ask people to invest in you, then that is a huge responsibility. When people are investing in you, you make sure that you pay back to them. Philanthropy is also about paying back to them; so when a community invests in you, you got to pay back to the community, that’s what philanthropy is about. So, whilst you are building the organization you don’t have money to pay back because you are investing in a business and you are building it up trying to make it profitable. The moment you build a profitable organization then you have to make sure that some of that profit goes into investing in that community that supported you. This is because in your success is their success and in their success is your success. 

    GJ: You got married late, was it by choice or destiny?

    KMS: It was both, unless you find the right person you don’t want to get married. The criticality of getting married should not come in the way of pursuing what you want to and I feel that sometimes we get very besotted with the thought of getting married as women and as parents who want their children to get married soon. But we do know that many marriages don’t work out. I decided when I was building this company that I could only marry somebody whom I could share my life with on an equitable basis and I wanted to look for a man who was much secured. I find that most Indian men are very insecure about a successful wife; it’s very difficult to find secure men in this country. They want the power over their women and they are very insecure when they have successful wives. So, I waited for a long time and my person is a much secured man, he supports me all the way. He is like a mentor to me because I might be a great entrepreneur but he brings a lot of professionalism in the business. He is very proud of what I do and so, I think you should wait for a person with whom you can share that kind of life. In my own case, it was the support that my father gave me, my mom also. She is over 80 who run a business. My parents were very supportive of what I am doing; my whole family is my biggest fan. Every woman needs a man who can share the responsibilities and in our society, that is something that needs to happen. Men cannot dump certain responsibilities on women and I hate the phrase how you balance work and family. It’s always balanced, right? The reason we use this word is because men don’t share certain responsibilities. That’s why the woman feels that the whole home responsibility is hers. 

    GJ: Most of the money invested in Biocon is through your own personal pocket, what makes you pay those 30% dividends?

    KMS: When I was setting up the foundation, I could have called it the Kiran Mazumdar Shaw Foundation, but I just felt that I wanted the company to look at philanthropy in a big way. Today I am the majority promoter of Biocon and so, in that sense, what I do or what Biocon does are in a way intertwined, so I wanted Biocon to be something that invests in its community and that will add value to this country. Thus, when I was making a significant contribution to the organization, I wanted Biocon to develop an ethos of giving. I think corporate social responsibility (CSR) is very important for any organization and I also believe that personal philanthropy is equally important. Since CSR and I are targeting similar kind of initiatives, I thought the company should start getting a name for that. Therefore, I felt that in any case my name is being used, like for instance the cancer hospital that is my personal contribution and that is the big impact that I will make. On the health insurance, the Arogya Rakshya, even though I am supporting most of it, Biocon also chips in and I feel that over time Biocon will do more and more. So, although I am helping out in the initial years until shareholders also start understanding the importance of CSR in a bigger way, I think I should do my bit. Today, the problem in India is that people are not used to giving and I also feel that even at a company level. It doesn’t matter how much you give, it is the concept of giving. I want to see every employee of the organization to give, even if it is 10 rupees. Depending on how much you earn, you can give any amount of money. But if you have the philosophy of giving for some things that can change people’s lives that are less fortunate than you are, that is the sense of giving I want to inculcate in Biocon. It’s still not happening. I think I should lead the way if I believe in it. In our country people are very selfish, they think Kiran can do it because she is wealthy, Biocon is doing it so why should we, her company is doing it. We are employees of her company and so that’s fine - that should not be the attitude. In our country there are millions who are starving, who don’t have access to education, health care, jobs, and I think we as citizens of the country must get into that giving philosophy. In Biocon, I want every single Bioconite to give something as personal philanthropy and it doesn’t matter how much. And when we get people to give then I think there should be worthwhile initiatives to back where people can identify what they are giving. When Biocon has funded CSR initiatives, for instance we built a school and why did we build the school because there was a newspaper report saying that right in the middle of the electronic city there is this poor area where the children don’t even have a school or a covered classroom. And isn’t this a shame for this high profile city to not be able to support a village school. I felt that was really bad and I was not even aware of it. So we built the school. We tried to help all the communities in the area and even when we started the micro insurance health programme, we wanted all children to be insured so that whenever they fall ill, the parents should not be scared to get their child treated. Hence, we insured all the children in this area. Then we do a lot of education programmes because I felt that this is the IT hub and most of the kids don’t even know how to add or subtract because the way we teach math in village schools is really bad because they don’t know basic arithmetic. So, we built this whole thing on math education “Mathematics for Small Children”. Then of course we looked at health and hygiene and we built individual toilets and we also built 500 homes for flood victims in Karnataka. Basically, we are doing our little bit which should make a difference to the population. This is because if it doesn’t make a difference, then these initiatives are just sheer waste of money. 

    Today, I am very angry because a lot of us built homes for these flood victims of Karnataka and the government has not yet allocated those homes to those people. Why? It is simply because there are political issues there. That makes me very angry and so now, I am very keen to make that political change. I think the way this country is being governed and the state is being governed needs to change. 

    There is too much of corruption and politics has become ugly. How do we change it? I am involved with a group of people in Bangalore today that believes that can we bring in better governance by citizens being elected. At least, let’s start with the state level polity where the municipal corporation has terribly failed the citizens. When there is a crisis, you make an opportunity of it. I think there are many here in Bangalore who can influence that change as this is one of those fewer cities where actually people get involved, unlike the other cities where they are not bothered. If people in Bangalore can lead the way, may be it’s a city that should be emulated. 

    GJ: Are you considering getting into politics?

    KMS: Never. I will never get into politics but I will influence politics. I was in Chandigarh once and someone asked me in that CII conference that you know you are very bold and you make statements against the government, we don’t see many industrialists doing that because most fear the backlash from the political quarters. What makes you so bold? And I said if you run your business ethically and if you engage with governments for the right reason, then why should you be scared speak up when they do things wrong. It’s only if you have something to hide and something where you have taken favours from the government that you wouldn’t want to speak up. That has to stop. We have to make this country far more transparent and accountable; we have to demand things from our government. I said I never make demands from the government, I had that backlash every time I had spoken about the government of Karnataka… I have had backlashes. But it doesn’t worry me because I take them on. So, if I ask about that why is the garbage so badly managed, you can’t just respond to me saying Oh! you are polluting. No, I am not polluting, I am dealing with pollution. If you guys are trying to detract my mind not speaking up because you are wrong then you are creating huge problems for the citizens of Bangalore. This issue has been accumulating for the last 20 years or at least 10 years and today, the villagers are fighting back. What I am basically saying here is that you should not be scared. If you are doing your business ethically and in the right way, demand from the government. The government is elected by the people, they are supposed to serve the people but here they are ruling the people, which shouldn’t be. That’s a wrong kind of governance we have in this country. It’s basically crony capitalism; today if anybody succeeds in business succeeds because they get unfair advantage from the government. When you have that kind of a situation, you will never fight the government, whereas if it’s otherwise you will demand things from the government. I built my company in spite and despite the government. For our kind of industry, we need huge amount of investment and we got nothing. So that’s what is important. 

    GJ: If you were the Health Minister of the country, what are the immediate policy changes you would recommend?  

    KMS: You need to create a health care model that takes full advantage of what the private sector has built, what the government can do and how do you marry the two. This is a great public private partnership model.  Here, we need a model which looks at the government playing a very important role in insuring its people, in reimbursing health care costs and in public procurement of essential drugs and I feel, the private sector needs to do its bit. To create a healthcare infrastructure where 80% of the health care infrastructure is in the private sector, we all need to join hands. But it needs to scale up much more. Because right now the private sector will only set up infrastructure where it believes it can make a business case of it. But today, it cannot make a business case of setting up hospitals - both secondary and tertiary sector hospitals in remote areas of India. But if tomorrow, the government says that it will reimburse the medical treatment costs in these remote hospitals, who will not set it up? So, you need to create this kind of holistic infrastructure; plus I also believe that you need a very strong policy from the health care ministry in using IT and egovernance in health care. Already, information technology is very strong in this country and we do need to use software and internet enabled platforms to do public procurement so that it is transparent, it’s online and you can track everything that’s happening in a transparent and accountable way. There are already some states governments who have succeeded in doing these, like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Kerala. The first policies that health care should announce are electronic medical accounts, the procurement of essential drugs where they would distribute them free of cost and we need to take on disease burden mapping where we could take on electronic databases where we could see what’s happening and whether the patients are benefiting from certain health care initiatives. There is already some good things happening where we got this huge army of ASHA workers, accredited social health assistance this is a women’s brigade actually and this is about creating health awareness, running health care camps. You’ve already got these so use them effectively. We need to do more diagnosis of the health of this country. Today, the IT and the mobile phones can very easily help you do this very effectively, but you need a policy for all these. You can’t do it in pockets and in sporadic way, there has to be holistic thinking and unfortunately what really saddens me is that nobody is thinking holistically. Everybody thinks of rushing off and doing things here and there and mot of these initiatives are about making money. It is not for really doing things in a cohesive way. Why are people interested in measuring diabetes in this country by glucometers and glucostrips because somebody in the government will be able to make some money and that’s very wrong. Just think about that if every company looks at some particular area and the government says ok and suggests that each company must do this in these districts, I think it will be very good… but not the diabetes stuff where a lot of people will make money out of it. That’s what we should avoid. If you put those gluco meters out and let the ASHA type workers work on them and get data that will be transparent enough for all to get access to it, then it will work. Where is the data being stored, you don’t know so it is all a wastage of resources. I think India is a country where we have huge wastage of resources and we know that by using IT in a smart way you can make it an efficiently run country. You can bring about huge levels of transparency and accountability.

    GJ: You had said in one of your interviews that you have many milestones to go, can you tell us about some of those milestones? 

    KMS: Milestones, in many ways. If I look at my own business then the milestones are developing a blockbuster drug, which to me is an ultimate milestone. Oral insulin is a milestone. First milestone is to become a billion dollar Revenue Company but in addition to that, I think when I had to look at my public role, I think we as a country have miles to go. When will Bangalore become a civilized first world city, it is not that today? That ways, we have many miles to go. When will the infrastructure be better, when will the power crises be over. We are hugely deficit of energy and power. When will we become a truly global country in terms of its economic potential? Today, if you look at it we do not have holistic planning to address energy. We have many ingredients of success, which we are not leveraging properly; we have the highest tele-density in the world in terms of population of our size. We are an agrarian economy with the lowest agricultural productivity; we are a country where our energy needs are not being met because we do not have enough resources. We live in a country where we do not even have basic health care and education. Our education system is really pathetic, because education does not address employability. We don’t want to just create employment; we should be creating employable educated youth. All these call for a revolutionary innovative ways of addressing these challenges. I believe very strongly in scaling up because we are doing things in pockets but how do we scale up. According to me, it’s not creating 100 IIMs and 100 IITs. It is about creating e-universities, e-classrooms, how do you get really good faculties catering to many more students, you have to think innovatively how you can create e-classrooms. It’s not easy but there are technologies available. We can lead the way, how do we use agriculture through the use of new technologies, biotechnology being one of them? How do we make sure that you look at the agricultural sector and you are not even bothered to use mechanization for agriculture? When I went to Chandigarh, I was pleased to see that a lot of their farms were mechanized. That’s why they look so much better than some of the land holdings you see in this part of the country. So, how do you bring about cooperative farming policy that incentivises people to create cooperative farming? But somehow politicians are interested in only winning votes and elections but they are not interested in the improvement aspects of this country. The greater good of the people is not on their minds.

    GJ: What makes you so passionate about Bangalore? 

    KMS: It is because I love the city. When I was talking about giving it back to your community where do you give it back. I wouldn’t give it to Delhi; it doesn’t make that kind of an impact though it makes a big impact everywhere else. Bangalore is the city I grew up in; this is the city I took advantage of when I was building the organization. This was the city that invested in me; the government invested in my business, the state government helped me in earlier days when they would give me the loans. So, I owe it to my city and community and from that point of view, any impact that I can make I should first make it in the city. I was engaged in the civic activities and initiatives where I could make a difference and as you become more successful you become more influential. And you must bring your influence to bring about a positive change. I mean you make your impact nationally in a different way but in terms of investing all my energies, I would like to do it in Bangalore. But in terms of bringing about policy change say about women issues, or on Biotech that has to be on a national and international level. 

    GJ: What is your time management mantra?

    KMS: I am a very multitasking person and so, I try to divide my time between Biocon, my philanthropy and my civic engagements with the government. I guess 60% of my time would be on Biocon and the balance 40% - I’d like to fit between my philanthropic and civic government engagements. The reason I can do that is because I enjoy both. With philanthropy, I like to spend a lot of time in my hospital because I am really very passionate about cancer care. About the civic issues, I am really very concerned. We tend to spend time on where we can make a difference because that’s the legacy we can live behind the company and what we can do in terms of societal impact.

    GJ: Of all the awards and accolades, you got the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and others, which one is the closest to you?

    KMS: Obviously, the national recognition, first the Padma Shri and then the Padma Bhushan, they are very special awards because it is a very large recognition in terms of what the country has recognized of you. And this is about government recognition, which basically sees that you have done something for the country. That to me is very important. Then the other recognitions are also very important like the global ones. For instance, the Time magazine ranked me as one of the 100 most influential people. If you are one of the 100 most influential people in the world then it was like ‘Wow! I didn’t realize that’.

    GJ: How would you like to be remembered?

    KMS: I certainly would want to be remembered as someone who was a pioneer, who built India’s biotech sector and pioneered India’s biotech sector and also as someone who brought in an important societal change for women in this country. 

    GJ: Do you think glass ceilings still exist in India?

    KMS: I think glass ceilings are in your mind. I think the glass ceiling is a transparent ceiling right so it’s up to you to either hallucinate that they are there or to think that they are not there. So break free. 


  • Kareena Kapoor Khan

    When Kareena tells you watching, working and loving films is all she cares to do in life, you believe her – because hers is the kind of passion that is palpable from the moment you set eyes on her. Spontaneous and brimming with unbridled energy, it is difficult to not take an instant liking to this feisty actor who has little qualms in opening up her life to you within the few hours you spend with her. A woman whose life has been shaped by first, her mother, then her sister, for Kareena, carrying her maiden name has actually served to be more of an impediment than a privilege….here she tells you why.  

    GJ: You’re the fourth generation of actors in your family, which has pretty much made Bollywood.

    KK: Yes, my whole family is in movies. So, being an actress was something that came very naturally to me.

    GJ: How did Karisma influence you as an actor? 

    KK: She influenced me in terms of getting my whole act together. I’m not even half as dedicated as her. She was one of the most professional actors of the time. Her hard work was definitely an inspiration for me. I can’t do the dances she did with Govinda. But our approaches to every situation are very different. I’m always very vocal about my faults and it helps me in my performance. I’m quite transparent with my emotions. Karisma is more restrained as an actor and as a person as well. 

    GJ: How did your mother contribute to shaping your personality? 

    KK: I’ve been brought up by my mom. There was that tradition of Kapoor daughters-in-law discontinuing with acting post marriage, like Ranbir’s and my mom. But later, it changed. My mom has influenced everything, right from my attitude to approach. She single-handedly brought us sisters up. I don’t think I can function without her. We’re both very attached to her. 

    GJ: How was it to take the lineage forward? Starting with Refugee, did you feel the pressure of carrying forward the ‘Kapoor’ tag?

    KK: I think so; there was a huge amount of pressure. We always tend to sympathize with people from outside the cine-world, which is that they don’t have a Bollywood sense, and they get into the industry without any backing, etc., and then, they make it big. Hence, the industry is kind to such people. Of course, it is a combination of hard work and talent. But having a Kapoor name or any such name from the industry attached to yours means you have to prove yourself every step of the way. I’ve worked very hard in my own way to prove that I’m not just a glamorous girl. I have done substantial films where I’ve had great roles, and I am currently acting with Mr Bachchan, Ajay Devgan, and working in Prakash Jha’s film which is a political drama, something that I’ve not done before. I will always want to prove myself as an actor, even though I have been doing it for the last twelve years. It just doesn’t stop, and it’s not the success that I’m chasing. I simply enjoy the making of a film, and I enjoy acting. I don’t know anything else apart from acting because that is what I’ve always done: watched movies and I’m proud of that.

    GJ: Before Omkara and Chameli happened, there were three years, from 2001 to 2004, which weren’t very favourable. Could you tell us more about that phase? 

    KK: I never want to think of those years. My films weren’t doing well. I now realize that there is always the right time, and especially in the film industry, and particularly for an actress. She suddenly blossoms and hits her peak. So those years were just not the time for me. There were other actresses who were older than me, and were experiencing the same at that time.

    But if those three-four years had not happened, this would not have happened either; you would not have been interviewing me. I am glad I didn’t have everything on a platter, and had to go through a fair share of struggle. That’s why I cherish that. Of course, those were films which nobody wants to remember. But to me, it made Kareena Kapoor; it made me the girl who is very strong, wants to achieve her goal, who wants to be one of the superstars. 

    GJ: How important is it for you to earn money?

    KK: Money is just incidental for me in this industry. It is obviously important in life. So, we must not take it lightly because nobody can survive on love and fresh air.  I also value money because my mother has seen a lot of troubling times; my sister had to struggle a lot when my parents weren’t together. I’ve seen dark times, too, with my mother, and she still looks after my finances. No matter how old you are, when it comes to talking to your mother, you will always feel like a twelve-year-old, because she will advise you on everything. That’s so important and that’s also a part of me; that’s what I am. I’m actually quite a simple, down-to-earth girl, who can also sit around and shoot, and wait for hours for her shot, thanks to the influences of my mom and my sister.

    GJ: How have those three years defined you as a person you are, because struggles really make us for who we are?  

    KK: I always say that if there is no failure, there is no success. It’s just the cycle of life. If there are tears, a smile always follows, and vice-versa. If there is happiness, there is sadness. That is the way God made things. The struggle had to be there for this moment to be. Jab We Met would not have been possible without that struggle. I played the character of Geet when I did not even imagine it would change my life to this extent.

    GJ: Everybody knows Geet as a personality. It’s such a fabulous character and there is so much of you in it…

    KK: But I never really thought about it. Sometimes, you don’t need to think about your character so much. You take it too seriously anyway. 

    GJ: I have to say I’ve watched the number ‘Fevicol se’, though I’ve not watched the movie Dabbangg 2. You’re amazing in it. You look fabulous. I think by far it is the best item number till date… 

    KK: I did the song after my wedding; everybody said they wanted a ‘size zero’, and it happened the way it did, with the weight. But it was great fun doing it. Of course, dancing with Salman is always so much fun.

    GJ: You’ve done Omkara, Ashoka, Jab We Met, and K3G.  Which has been your favourite performance till date?  

    KK: I would say Jab We Met. But, I think, there have been films like Chameli, Dev and also a film with Mani Ratnam, called Yuva, which was brilliant. I think it is easy to play a character, but difficult to play a normal girl, because to show normalcy on-screen, you just have to be great. You have to be a good actor to be normal on-screen. It is because everyone is trying to be a character which is like you, so you need to work on it and research it before playing it. But how to research normalcy! That was the brilliancy of Geet that she was a normal Punjabi girl, and that, I think, was the brilliancy in Yuva, too. So, these two characters have been my favourites. 

    GJ:  You are the fourth generation Kapoor in the industry and you’ve got a splendid mass appeal. What do you have to say about being the most liked female actor by the country? 

    KK: I’m sure that will change. But of course, we strive to be there, we strive for that recognition. My mass appeal has also been because I understand the business a lot, since I’ve grown up watching films. My song-and-dance is like me drinking water and eating dal. No meal is complete without dal, rice and sabzi. I feel hungry if I don’t eat that, and that is what the masses also want. They just like the complete package of Indian women and somehow they like the glamorous diva, too. I don’t know how, but I’m able to strike that balance, between the personal and professional. 

    GJ: What makes both the sides of Kareena so lovable?

    KK: The audiences like that. So many people said that I shouldn’t get married because married women are not well accepted in the industry. But I think there’s nothing sexier than being a married woman. 

    At times, foreign brands are alien to the Indian masses and the youth of our country. You’ll find them all at Zara and Mango because they can relate to these brands. That’s the reason why I’m always in casual tees. It’s just relatable. Being an actor is also about your fans being able to relate to you, and saying that I just want to be like her. That’s why I think people like me for who I am. 

    GJ: As a begum, do you think the choice of movies is going to change from this point onwards or as an actor, you just haven’t been redefined by the nuptial?

    KK: I’m an actor by profession, and I respect my family that I’m married into, and the family comes first. Even though the title is not recognized, people do address me as Begum Pataudi. But my choice of films can never change because that’s a part of me, and it has made me who I am. People have loved me for my work and they look at me with admiration and respect because of my work and my choice of roles. So, my choice of roles can never change because my image has been that of a diva. But there also has been a side which is grounded, like the roles in Jab We Met, Golmaal 3 and Omkara. 

    I am no more Kareena Kapoor, I’m Kareena Kapoor Khan, which is great, and I understand my responsibility towards my own family as well as Saif’s. I’ve been a good child to my parents, and, hopefully, I will be a good child to my mother-in-law and the Pataudis, too. I did the number ‘Fevicol se’ after my marriage, and Saif likes the song. In fact, my first compliment was from him. 

    GJ: You were in a five-year live-in relationship, and were very outspoken about it, unlike other actors. You handled the media circus around it very gracefully, too. What kept you going throughout that time?

    KK: Some people did object my being in a live-in relationship considering I was from the Kapoor family. I always spoke about it because I thought I was being honest to the media and to my fans. I wanted to have a live-in relationship because I thought it was time for me to move out of my mother’s home because I was working so much, and I would never get to see Saif. In Bollywood, the tried-and-tested formula always works, so why not try and test a relationship, too. There is nothing wrong in it.

    GJ: You’re probably the only actor from the current generation who has been in a stable relationship and was outspoken about it, too, at all times… 

    KK: However, sometimes things don’t work out. I’ll be brave in my decisions, but with a slightly traditional approach. I’m an Indian girl at heart but my thoughts are slightly ahead of the times. And that’s a great approach to have, and all women should be like that. 

    GJ: Where did you get the confidence and grace from when it came to handling controversies and the media circus around them? 

    KK: I learnt a lot by observing my sister. Eventually, you do build your own image, your own ground and relationships in the industry. Everyone knew me as Karisma’s younger sister, and I love to be called that even today because I think she is brilliant. But eventually, you’ve to find your own way. And with the Kapoor lineage, the pressure was always on.

    GJ: You made a public stage performance after your marriage…

    KK: I just took a stand, in fact, just a little before the wedding that I will dance on stage. I will go to award functions when they invite me to perform on the stage, on my songs, because it is film-related and I do come from films. But I don’t dance at weddings, and that’s a personal choice that Saif and I have made. I have to draw the line somewhere. Of course, I’m an actor, so I should concentrate more on acting.

    GJ: What is the best thing about being in a relationship with Saif?

    KK: The best thing about being with Saif is also why I decided to marry him: because he is the right man for me. I come from a filmy family where everything is about movies. Obviously, there is so much more to experience in life apart from being an actress and going to the sets. I wanted to be with a man who can tell me stories, talk to me beyond movies. And that’s what Saif has brought into my life. And the bonus is that he is extremely charming and good-looking, too! 

    GJ: How would you describe your relationship with Saif’s children, Sara and Ibrahim?

    KK: Both Sara and Ibrahim are very intelligent and bright. Being a mother is not something they would want from me. They are Saif’s children, and they have a wonderful mother who is bringing them up and they seem so happy. They will always come first in every situation in life because if Saif is not a good father, he is not a good man. I would want his focus to be on his children and when we will have our own children, they will all be siblings. 

    GJ: How do you feel being married, being a Begum, a Bollywood diva? Would it be right to say that you are karmically blessed?

    KK: No, I’m not karmically blessed. It’s something that I’ve always wanted, all my life. You know as a child that this is what you want to be when you grow up. I wanted to be a big movie star, and I wanted to have a fairytale romance. I always wore my heart on my sleeves. It was a nice ride till I finally met Saif, and fell in love. It’s great; love is an enriching. 

    GJ: What’s brand Kareena? 

    KK: I don’t know. Like I said, the honesty has taken me a long way. The attitude of being a strong, honest and confident girl can never go wrong. People sometimes mistook my candid approach to be arrogant. In fact, I’ve been misunderstood and misquoted so many times. 

    Today, we need women to be independent. They should have the strength and confidence, and at the same time be passionate towards what they want from life. At the same time, respect for our traditions is also necessary. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything against the wishes of my family, or done something that I shouldn’t have done. I always do what I want, but I’m slightly traditional with my approach. 

    GJ: You did a clothing line with Globus which was very successful and now, there’s the book. Can we expect more creative pursuits beyond acting from you? 

    KK: Of course. I’m so much into clothing, I really want to design clothes or attach my name to something like a pair of jeans: a Kareena Kapoor jeans. So, I’m with Matrix and we’re talking to foreign brands whom we can bring down and attach my name to it. So, eventually, fashion would probably be a direction which I would think of. I come from a family of producers and directors, but I think you need to have more patience to be a director than an actor. And I don’t have that patience. I see myself acting forever. I mean, of course, when I’m forty or fifty years old, I’ll probably be doing different roles. I love Meryl Streep and I look up to her in every which way as a woman, as an actor. And I hope I can follow in her footsteps. I want to try different types of roles. 

    GJ: How would you describe yourself? Do you feel you are a style diva? 

    KK: I can be extremely stylish in my Zara t-shirt. I don’t need to wear Alexander Macqueen to be stylish. I would, sometimes, but I don’t need to. I think I’m born stylish. Style is comfort, it’s attitude, it’s everything. And that’s what even the book (The Style Diary of a Bollywood Diva, Kareena Kapoor, Rochelle Pinto, published by Penguin India, 2012) says. Money should be spent in the right places, at the right time. 

    Saif likes me glamorous; he doesn’t like me when I’m not glamorous. He certainly likes my look in Omkara, the way I look without make-up. But he prefers to go out on a date with the glamorous Kareena Kapoor.

    GJ: How do you see the coming years, personally? 

    KK: Saif and Lolo’s children and I are like friends, and that’s important to me. They’re a part of our home and our family. Having children of my own is something both Saif and I haven’t yet discussed. For me, having a baby does not mean solidifying m marriage. I didn’t marry Saif to cement the relationship; I did it because I love him.

    I definitely want to work for the next two years, and that’s my plan. I endorse around twenty-two brands and all contracts are valid for the next two-three years. 

    GJ: How have you changed as a person since Refugee? 

    KK: I’m more mellow and so much calmer as compared to before. Being married, age, some maturity and certain experiences… all that has helped. When you’re content with work and at home, it makes you calmer. 

    GJ: Everything seems quite perfect for you… What excites you when you wake up in the morning?

    KK: I don’t know… probably the fact that I’m enjoying this whole experience of being an actor. But just being myself as Kareena Kapoor is also quite important. I need to be the girl I am and that’s something that excites me.

    Kareena Kapoor Khan


    She has no qualms in admitting that she is not an ambitious person. In fact, that she is actually afraid. But despite that, what makes Yasmeen Premji a person of her own – a successful author and a beloved philanthropist - is her penchant to do the things she loves, without an iota of expectation for awards or recognition. Her biggest influences have been her mother and her mother-in-law – both brought up in middle-class households, much like her – and both teaching her that life’s best kept secret is to laugh and to learn as you go along.  

    GJ: How has Mr. Premji influenced you?

    YP:  Well, I have been an admirer. I think, it was very important for me to be with somebody whose values I respect and at that time, in Indian business, there were values that were not as respectful. If I had thought he was one of those, that he belonged to the latter category then I couldn’t have married him. I could not have married somebody that I felt didn’t keep to that level of ethics. Our families had known each other forever. My father was on their board. But, I didn’t know him until I met him and hence, in that sense, it was an arranged marriage!

    GJ: What would you say has defined your professional journey?

    YP: I don’t think working at an organisation defines anybody. I wrote a short story at the time when I was working with Esso. I remember, a boy had come to ask for a job and I had to interview these boys who were desperate for jobs. This boy was a sensitive, young chap and I got chatting with him. Then, I wrote a short story on how a young boy comes for an interview but doesn’t get a job and finally commits suicide or something like that… it was completely fictional though but I learnt a lot from the people who I dealt with for recruitments. I found it very interesting to talk to these people. I remember there was this Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh. This was the time at Esso when the company had a policy that it would take one son from each family for the next round. So this Muslim man gets a job for his son. But the next day, he arrives with somebody who is very ‘Hindu Looking’ in terms of a big tilak on his forehead. He told me that since I gave a job to his son, I should also give a job to this man who was his brother. I was quite taken aback because here he was with totally different looking person, and he claimed that the man was his brother from his village and hence, he should be given a job. And I thought that was also India. It was amazing the kind of relationship you have where you can keep your identities… nobody is an outsider. There is so much love and affection when they go back to the same village. I told him to submit the papers and promised that if on grounds of merit, he can be recruited, I would do so. I believe, we learn a lot from the interactions we have and that helps us define ourselves.

    GJ: What about your school days has helped shape your persona?

    YP: I loved my schools days. I had a great time in school. I took part in almost everything and my mother would say - how come all the other children come back by 4.30 but you arrive at 6.30 everyday? How come every day you have something going on – be it drama or sports or whatever else? I had a very busy school life and I don’t regret a minute of it. 

    GJ: You were an athlete and very good in sports. What appealed to you as a sportsperson about the games you opted for?

    YP: I was never a good athlete… it was just a very important part of my life. It kept me grounded and gave me a lot of joy, a lot of positive energy. So, I really enjoyed it. It is very important for me in life to do things that you enjoy and not just do things with the intention to achieve something. I believe, if you achieve something along the way that’s fantastic.Like ifyou want to write, I believe you should write what you like. If your book is published, then that is a bonus. But the thing is that you should just live your life. In fact, I am not ambitious, I am afraid.

    GJ: How has your father shaped you?

    YP: Well, not very much, because he didn’t have much interaction with me. He was a father who was just there. I didn’t really discover him until later.It was more of a traditional set-upwhere the fathers did not have “much to do” in the family. So, I remember there was much more interaction with the women of the family except once when I was around 15-16 and I started asking my mom some questions and she said - go ask you father and I was surprised I didn’t know my father too well and I said how will he know and she said your father has an infinite store of trivia. He knows all kinds of things about all kinds of things.

    GJ: You went backpacking – an experience that has been documented publicly. What drove you to do that?

    YP: I was backpacking alone, without any friends. I was always very keen on travelling. When I was eight years old, I read a poem called The Peddler’s Caravan. It is about a man who lives in a caravan and goes around. I remember at that age, this is what I wanted to do with my life but, it never happened because I was pretty conventional about my own things. However, I knew I loved travelling. So, after I finished my studies abroad, I took off and came back when the money ran out, and then I went back for the second round! In hindsight, when I think of other people belonging to my generation, and how open or broad minded my parents were to allow me to do this… I feel amazed! It is like how you get your sense of confidence and empowerment from such travelling. Some are rebels and manage to do these things. But, within a conventional framework of a middle class family and to give me that space without making me feel guilty, but instead making me feel that I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I think that was wonderful.

    GJ: How would you describe your backpacking days? How was it for you to travel alone? 

    YP: There was no fear, instead it was wonderful.There was a feeling of freedom. At first, I took the student ship out after finishing from the States to Europe. I wanted to elongate that journey and hence, took the ship. For me, travel started from day one and hence, if you put me in a car to take me around the world, I will go in the car only because that would take the longest time to finish the journey. The idea was not to hop into a plane and start my holiday. I wanted to go to America by ship but unfortunately there was a six day international conflict of sorts, and so I could not go through the sea route. Hence, I decided to fly to UK and take a ship from there. When I went there, I went to Queen Mary because people travel through there so that was a bit stiff. On my way back, I took the student ship which, instead of taking five days like the Queen Mary would take, it took ten days; and they were great ten days. Most people were young; lots of them were students and lots more were simply backpacking in Europe.  It was a wonderful ten day trip. I didn’t have to wait to get to Europe to start my holidays because my holiday started exactly when I left… that’s how I look at it! 

    I wanted to get a little bit of everything – be it the historical sites, the food, meeting up some locals, travelling around the city et al. I loved walking down the cities to get a feel of the place. In fact, at that time, I could walk the streets of Paris or wherever for hours. 

    GJ: What are your favourite holiday destinations or memorable excursions you have experienced? 

    YP: There was no particular city that excited me the most, as such. I think each place I went to had its special influence. I have enjoyed going to all sorts of places. But, I don’t think I like going to big city places like London, New York etc. I really enjoyed my trip to Burma and Uzbekistan. I think everybody is looking for something that appeals to their souls. I am no different. I would have loved to go to a lot of places in India. I remember, when I came back from the States after a backpacking trip, and I started working In India, I really wanted to backpack in India for the next six months. While I could go backpacking in Europe all alone, I wasn’t so confident of my safety here in India. It was then that I needed a companion but none of my female friends were willing to do a six-month India trip. That was the time when I wanted to take the IAS exam because my uncle asked me to.  I realized that the only reason I wanted to actually take the exam was to go on Bharat Darshan. It would have been really exciting to just see India because I feel India is a great country. 

    GJ: How did such travelling change you as a person at that age?

    YP: I didn’t think of it as anything special. I didn’t think of it as something phenomenal at all. I always wanted to travel, and I travelled. My brothers had been abroad before and after they finished their studies, they too embarked on a journey of their own. Hence, to me, it seemed routine.

    GJ: Can you tell us about people who have influenced you most deeply in your life?

    YP: Well, it has been my mother-in-law and my mother. My mother was a very special person. To laugh and to learn are the two things she taught me. Whatever you achieve in life depends on your own capacity, your own hard work and I believe in certain other factors which one can’t really identify - whether you call it fate or destiny. But, of course, a lot will depend on yourself – to keep laughing, to keep learning and being able to keep reinventing or going on with life. That was a very important lesson. And my mother-in-law was a really strong person. She did good things, she was very straight forward. They were both very straight forward people. If I have to put it strongly, I would say there was no bullshitting about them and those were very good things. It is very solid with people like that.Like I knew that she would never ever “betray me”. I knew that if she ever had an issue, she would come to me directly and not go to anybody else and that there would never be any back biting. So, there were a lot of values I learnt from these people. It was not that these were new values because I had already imbibed them from home but they were reinforced and they made me feel good.

    GJ: You are talking about the value system… In one of your dinners, your mother-in-law is looking at the menu and she says, ‘300 rupaiya bhi hazam nahi hoga’. Can you tell us a little more about this episode and your mother-in-law?

    YP:  I wanted to treat her. The funny thing is that both my mother and mother-in-law, didn’t come from an extremely rich family. We came from a comfortable background and my parents didn’t over indulge us as kids. I mean, that was part of growing up. And yet, once I was like, let’s take you to the Taj and she said - ab yeh sab gale nahi utarega because the rates had gone up tremendously in the last 30 years or so.  She suggested lets go to the club and my mother-in-law had a similar kind of reaction which was amusing. So, maybe, that’s where we all come from. 

    GJ: During his academic days, Mr. Premji had to come back leaving his degree halfway because his father passed away. You were a great support system for him then. How would you describe that period?

    YP: When I come to think of it, I realize that both my mother and husband are self educated. My mother had to drop out of high school and my husband had to drop out of college. So they did the next best available thing… they read and they read and they read.  Despite that, I would call my mother an extremely educated person though she did not even pass her high school because she read on literature, spirituality, philosophy, history, biography et al. Like I told you before, I was the butt quote of this - arey yaar sun na kya likha haikya laya hai… whatever excited her, she shared. So, that was a very rich experience. She taught me to read and understand. On my eighth birthday, she gave me a dictionary and some other books and she said - anytime you read a book and you don’t understand something; look it up and write it down in this book. So, that is how I learnt. This comes from a woman who was a high school dropout. My husband also did the best thing. When we got married, he was reading a lot. He was starting a company and he wanted it to grow. He also knew that it couldn’t have been a little family company and if we want to grow, we have to know.If you are going to direct people, you got to know more than them.  So he educated himself accordingly and often, he would give me notes to write. So that was very interesting! 

    GJ: What were Wipro’s growing days like when your husband returned back to India and started the company? 

    YP: Actually, when we got married, it was still more of a consumer company. There was a shift after that because he realized that he had to go into new pastures. He talked to a lot of people seeking advice and understanding in what direction he should venture and finally, he decided that this was the way to go. He just moved.

    GJ: How did that period shape you as you witnessed the making of a legend?

    YP: I don’t think it drastically changed me. I could see this man growing and I could see that he was thinking on a different wavelength altogether. I had to just go along.  The experience did shape me. He was very low key, nobody ever heard of him till they heard of him, which was many years later. So, it was only when the IT boom happened in the late 1990s or 2000 that people heard of him. He never felt the need to become a public figure at all even while the company was growing. When people asked for interviews, he never went for them. He would instead send his senior managers. He believed that they need the exposure... that he never needed to be seen.

    GJ: Coming to your children…Did you have a difficult time when your kids were teenagers? 

    YP: I think, in many roles in life you do the best that you can do and hope for the best. That’s how I would define my experience as a mother. I had a very easy upbringing, so it came to me very naturally to give my kids a very easy upbringing too.

    GJ: What, according to you, would mean success to you as a mother?

    YP: If my kids are good people and lead decent and honest lives… for me, that is much more important than what they become or what they achieve. And I genuinely hope that they are in this direction. That would truly make me feel successful as a mother!

    GJ: You have seen two kids grow. What is the wisdom that you have inculcated in yourself that allowed you to be as free in that role?

    YP: I think the most important thing you can give your children is confidence and I don’t know if I have been fully successful in doing so. I have seen that even if you are a beggar’s child but if you are loved and approved of by your parents; then you will have a lot of confidence… It doesn’t matter if you are a prince but if you aren’t approved of by your family, then you will not get the confidence in yourself. For me, this is the most important takeaway as a parent. I believe that if you have the confidence, you have half won the battle of life! I also have this theory that women who have become strong achievers have had strong relationships with their fathers. Had I been young, I would have done a research project in this specific psychology. 

    GJ: Speaking about your professional life… Before working at the Inside Outside magazine, you were working somewhere… how would you describe your first job?

    YP: The first job I did wasread to an old man in the neighbourhood.Very quickly into my marriage I realized that I am married to a workaholic who is not going to have time in the day to spare for me. So, I knew I had to do something to kill time in the day. While I didn’t get involved in the hospital, but I knew I had to find something else. I met someone from our community who said that her father didn’t want her to go to college and hence, there was no question of working. My family is a strong contrast to this mindset. In my family, there was no question of not going to college. In fact, if you are not going to college, you might jolly well work until you get married. There was no question of sitting idle – be it boys or girls. Hence, all we cousins did whatever jobs we could manage. It was always a good learning. So, as soon I came from abroad, I got a job. I worked with Esso for two and a half years and then I went off again. On my return, I got married pretty shortly and then I was like - what to do. I used to look up at these ads. Because I had worked in Personnel, I thought of doing the same but that was a six-day a week job. At that time, my husband liked to go away for weekends and so, I thought it wasn’t the right fit for me. I remember, there was an ad to read to an old man in our neighbourhood. I thought let me read to the old man! The man was in his 80s and his eyesight had failed. He belonged to a lovely family; and he and his wife was a very soft and charming couple. I would really enjoy reading to him. I think, I have enjoyed my interactions with older people because elegant men, old cultures etc always made me feel happy.

    GJ: How was your experience with Inside Outside as an Assistant editor of the magazine?

    YP: That was my first job literally and I worked part time because my children were still young. I had a wonderful experience and had a great time with everybody I was working with. I had a wonderful boss. I drove my boss crazy with the million suggestions. I was always chattering to the extent that my boss would ask me to keep it low so that they could complete their work. But it was a very interesting job because I liked writing and I liked design; so, it fit perfectly for me.

    GJ: How would you describe your stint at Esso?

    YP: I loved that job as well. I was working as a personnel supervisor and was in charge of recruitment etc. So, that was a good experience. I remember, I was very fond of my boss and used to drive him insane. I was in my 20s and full of questions and suggestions. He would say, ‘Yasmeen, please will you leave my office so that I can get some work done.’ I had good mentors and so I liked my time at Esso. It was also the time when Esso was in the process of becoming nationalized and shortly after I joined them, my boss suggested that I was the only person from my generation and if I really wanted to head a department it was possible in ten years time since it was a vertical climb. He asked me to get a degree in management. I thought about it and realized that’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what was it that I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to work in a corporate that way. What I really wanted to do was travel. I worked for two and a half years after which I got an opportunity to travel and I went off again.

    GJ: How was the experience of designing the architecture of the Azim Premji Foundation office?

    YP: Oh, it was wonderful. I learnt at Inside Outside that you don’t really need to be an architect to design. There were people who were artists and could design. I think, the first house I designed was only because my husband basically wanted to keep me busy! So, as soon as we got married and he didn’t know what to do with this new bride as he didn’t have enough time to spend; so he bought a new office and asked me to design it. I said I had no clue on this front and yet he insisted that I do it. I remember going to my brothers IBM office and looking at his office which I never looked at from the designing perspective. I found it extremely pleasurable to the point that I pursued a diploma in interior design. Later on, I built my first house. It was a small place worked out in stone. We both liked stone and natural materials. While building the house, I was very happy because every day was a new experience. It was very different kind of architecture that I was doing here. It was great fun. I had a very nice engineer who said that I built a beautiful terrace but forgot to build a way to go up there. That’s when I realized the staircase was missing. 

    GJ: As an author… You wrote a lot of life stories, of people’s experiences and tragedies?

    YP: Not really. I just wrote a few short stories. I was very fortunate that my stories got accepted. I never really had the experience of rejection of my work! In fact, I used a pseudo name in the first story. My first and second stories got accepted immediately but when I wrote a short story many years later, it got rejected and I was quite surprised. The editor called me and said that because he had published previous stories, they were now looking for something more cheerful. May be this was around the time when I was in my 40s… though my story was more realistic, may be darker but they were looking for something different altogether. So, after my last story got rejected, I decided to write a book. That’s how it started.

    GJ: Why did you use a pseudo name in the first story?

    YP: That was because I was 17 and I thought it was a cool thing to do. I used the pseudo name WYE because that was my initial. However, then I realized I don’t need to do this and hence, the next story onwards, it was Yasmeen Chinoy.

    GJ: You waited 20 years to script your first book. What was it like for you to write that book?

    YP: I waited because I had to write. I heard all these wonderful and interesting stories from my mother, my mother-in-law and I was excited about the old days. However, at that time, there was very limited writing in India. I knew I would like to write a kind of book that I like to read. I felt there weren’t many books against an Indian backdrop like a good saga or a good story. That’s exactly what I started to write. I wrote on all the things. There were some stories I had heard but let it go because I was not ambitious. Today, a young person says I want my book written at the end of the month. It is a different generation who wants to make a name and be famous. I had no such ambition and was in no particular rush. I did not tell anybody about writing a book. I was writing at my own speed for myself and wasn’t consulting anyone at all.
    I was just lazy. Frankly, I am a great procrastinator. I began to read these little things because I realized what I wanted to write about were based in Bombay. I thought, I will write some rags to riches story. I would fill in all the stories I wanted and I will give the saga of a man. I wanted to put in so many things was because it was life that I was thinking of and there was no deadline. I realized I would never be comfortable with deadlines. So, if you tell me to get something done by evening, somehow I won’t be able to do that. My job at Inside Outside too had no deadline issues. But it was a fantastic feeling when the book was published. 

    GJ: What was your family’s response to the book?

    YP: When I told them about publishing a book, I think they were excited. My mother and husband, though they never mentioned it explicitly, but I am sure they thought that finally I got something.  Mine is not a reading family. But when my husband actually read it, he said he was impressed. He is a man of few words and hence, that was enough for me. Of my two sons – one had read the book, while the other hasn’t read it at all. The one who read it, claims to like it.

    GJ: What does the book mean to you?

    YP: I think, increasingly nobody would listen to you because for whatever reasons, it was not important. So, I thought what the heck, I will write it down. It is gratifying that there are people who paid to read things that my family refused to listen to. The book was a way of communicating what I wanted to say since I didn’t have any other means of communication. In this sense, the book is very important to me. There were a lot of things I wrote in the book, in my way and that connected with people reading my book. The idea was to reach to people and the book helped me do that. All stories in my book weren’t documented ones. It was completely a work of fiction when it came to characters or family stories that interested me. I wanted it to be an all inclusive book with as many references and influences to as many parts of India, to the kind of experiences that I had heard or been through.

    GJ: While you have experienced wealth, you have also given away wealth. What is the relationship happening there between you and wealth?

    YP: I have never experienced wealth. I have always been a comfortable middle class person. I would never say that wealth changed my life. In fact, wealth didn’t change my life at all. I continued to be a middle class person despite what I had financially.

    GJ: How was your childhood? Were you a rebel, growing up?

    YP: By God’s grace, I could go to a good school and then to a good college. My parents, even if I didn’t get a scholarship, could send me overseas. The fact is that I had to get a scholarship. They said they had no money and hence, they couldn’t send me. I argued that my brothers went and hence, I too wanted to do. I told them that I would find my own man and needed no dowry so they can use the dowry money they have put aside and let me go. Having gone through experiences like this, I can say that money didn’t make any difference to any of us at all. We have always been comfortable with whatever we had and continue to enjoy the same comfort even today. At least, I don’t need to belong up there, to a rich persona to find comfort. 

    GJ: What does spirituality mean for you?

    YP: Being content in your own soul. Finding contentment and inner peace.

    GJ: Are there any definite goals - personal or professional - that you have set for yourself?

    YP: No goals. One day at a time. Sometimes that gets you the farthest you want to go.

    GJ: If you could bring out the essence of your own journey in a few words, what would it be?

    YP: It is not yet over. I haven’t thought that my life is worthy of such close examination and so, I don’t really know what to answer. We do examine our lives, we grow and like everyone else, I constantly learn from friends who are more calm, better and much more advanced in their journeys.

    GJ: How would you like to be remembered?

    YP: I don’t want to be remembered at all. This is a journey; you will go on to the next. I am not ambitious. I am curious about life. It’s unfolding and I am watching it.

    GJ: One lesson to the youth?

    YP: Message to the youth… I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. I don’t think I am wise enough to give messages. 



    There are a myriad of ways to describe this powerhouse of a woman, Dr Swati Piramal, who, along with her husband, turned a textile-centred business into Piramal Healthcare Limited, a Rs21,000 crore conglomerate that works in pharmaceuticals, real estate, financial services and packaging. She’s one of India’s leading scientific minds and industrialists, and is a doctor by training. She is also an alumna of the Harvard School of Public Health and has dedicated her life to the prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes and arthritis.

    Gunjan Jain (GJ): How would you describe your journey of 23 years?

    Swati Piramal (SP): It has been a fascinating journey, and a very satisfying one for me. It’s like thinking of an impossible dream and achieving it.

    GJ: What was your childhood like? Are there episodes that had a very strong influence to shape you to be the person that you are today?

    SP: My mom and dad had a strong influence on me. My dad always would make me read. I think, if a child learns how to read and learns how to find something that he doesn’t know, then most of the battle is won because books are your best friends. He was keen that I study mathematics. My mom is a very enthusiastic person and used to say ‘I don’t want to hear the word depression from you, forget about all this stuff like depression, what’s that about?’

    GJ: What do you have to say about the judgments coming towards you because at that time it was not very common for women to work?

    SP: I was very lucky to start with a very strong foundation of loving parents as they believed in me, so I think that is the biggest reason for my success. And then I was second lucky with my in-laws who also believed in women, that women should work, and my father-in-law was a liberal man and so was my mother-in-law, and hence, I’m lucky on both sides. I got married early, I had children early, they grew up early so I could work and it was all a set of circumstances.

    GJ: Your father-in-law passed away when you were young. In three years, your brother-in-law was detected with cancer, and the mill factory collapsed too. How did you feel at that point? What sustained you through?

    SP: It was really a low point in my life. The thought that tough people last and tough times don’t is what got me through. It was a test of spirituality, test of what you believe in. I remember how at the mere age of 29 my husband headed the textile company as the Chairman. The elders warned us that the journey would not be easy but my husband and I nevertheless took up the challenge and my husband said, “I respect the old but I think they are wrong”, so he took over the whole group. Industry was bankrupt because of textile strike but slowly, piece by piece, he recovered the business and grew it; he decided to diversify and bought a small company and grew it.

    GJ: The first ten years is taxing time for any company but Piramal made it to the top five from 48th rank. Especially in a competitive and intense industry like the pharmaceuticals, how did you do it?

    SP: The textile industry is a commodity driven industry, whereas the pharmaceuticals is a knowledge industry. It was a completely different business. So, we built it step by step, slow and steady, focusing on the immediate goals and making sure that we deliver them. And definitely, good management principles helped us gain market share little by little, building well and then taking the next acquisition. Eventually, the business grew and then we sold the company for $3.8 billion, which we had initially bought for ten crores. It was completely a value addition for the share holder. We learnt how to build a business, how to get into acquisitions, how to work for consumers.

    GJ: Where does the effortless synergy between you and Ajay Piramal come from?

    SP: We have different strengths; like in matters of high finance, Ajay would naturally do it, if it were something to do with R&D, medical health that’s where I took over. We were in a business which needed the both of us. That’s why it worked so well for us. We agree upon many things, debate a lot on many things. We handle different parts that play to our strengths.

    GJ: Has doing business together ever put strain to your marriage?    

    SP: We don’t meet at all at work except for sometimes at evenings when we would sit together to discuss some issues. We work 24/7 and there is little holiday time. We love our work.

    GJ: Which acquisition was the one which has given you the maximum excitement?

    SP: Personally, for me it is the R&D deal because they had 25 years of work; it’s a German company and they hadn’t yet achieved the end.

    GJ: What do you intend to do with the Vodafone India deal money?

    SP: Most of it is going to go into pharma and also our new innovative business, second vertical will be on financial services and the third one will be defense. Defense doesn’t mean making trucks and guns but home surveillance products, security business, about technology and surveillance.

    GJ: Regarding the HR policies, yours is considered to be one of the best places to work in India. How do you keep the motivation going?

    SP: We are a fair employer. We try to make it friendly for women. There was one lady who said her previous work place was highly male intensive, somewhere in north India and used such bad words that was demeaning. When she came here, she found this clean respectful environment and she said “I really enjoyed working for you”. I think sometimes there are very simple things that you can enforce. Pornography at work is what we do not allow on our computer system. It makes a woman feel better and safer.

    GJ: Because HR policies in our country are not very advanced,  how do you deal with it?

    SP: We have a policy on sexual harassment; we follow it and such complaints come straight to me. So, I mean these are just forward looking things. Senior people are looking at issues of safety and health and environment. We possibly spend more on health and safety and environment than any other company in India.

    GJ: You have a strong leadership drive within you. You’re the first woman President of Assocham and the only woman in the scientific body of the Government of India. Can you elaborate on how did you manage to succeed at these roles?

    SP: There are three areas written in the company manual, and also prescribed as a management lesson in Bhagwad Gita: Knowledge, Action and Care. If you have knowledge, nobody can fight you because you have the answer to everything. When I became the President of Assocham, I had no idea about banking, or the economy of a nation. At that time, I was to greet the President of Indonesia, so before the President arrived, I had to read a thousand pages on Indonesia. Before I went for a meeting at RBI, I learnt whatever I could about banking. Basically, I did my homework.  So when I went to meetings, I was armed with knowledge. This helped me answer pragmatically to real questions; nothing that is frivolous or funny or irrelevant. Knowledge is my biggest weapon. I know how to search for anything. I had the innate curiosity to know things, and learn things.

    Next is about action. One thing with women is that they are uncomfortable to step outside their comfort zone. They lack time and enthusiasm to step out. Action is about doing something where an individual has to persevere, something that comes over time and not immediately.

    Next is the concept of seva or service. When leading people, I am always concerned about what they need in the first place.

    GJ: Did the financial companies like ICICI or LIC ever intimidate you?

    SP: I wonder why they need a doctor and I ask all of them the same. But the institutions wanted a new view, the view of a consumer, they wanted a general management view and I already had the experience as I was already running a successful business, running companies. Whenever it’s my turn to talk about economy, I play the common joke; I tell them it’s my version of the Indian economic index. Interesting index concept: the pomegranate index… it meant when a person sells pomegranate on a cart across the city streets, then you know that there is not much malnutrition, because people don’t buy pomegranates as it is an expensive fruit; they would rather buy banana. Buying pomegranates means that you have enough wealth and therefore, they would not stint on milk for a little child. According to me, it is a simple way of assessing the real growth of economy. 

    GJ: Do you think being a woman has made you a better leader?

    SP: I think so, because women naturally have a different way of looking at things, they are nurturing, they are more inclusive, do better at team work, and they are more sensitive, and so, I can often tell Ajay when a person is upset more easily than he can because we read signals which are at a subliminal level. I think there are so many advantages of being a woman.

    GJ: How do manage work life balance?

    SP: I don’t waste time; I don’t spend time on frivolous things. I don’t know when was the last time I went to movies! I don’t go to kitty parties.

    GJ: You have been on the board of several apex bodies. What, according to you, should be the policy changes that would help India lead the world?

    SP: There are two major ones. One, we have to look at ourselves as leaders, but we see ourselves as followers of some other economy. For instance, how will we invent a medicine for 50 million diabetic patients in India when we follow the West because they don’t have as many diabetics as India does? If we got an HIV virus that is unique to India and has got a genetic mutation, we better know what that is all about. We better have answers to our own problems. Innovation, new thinking and self belief that we can be leaders is not there within the people. So, I would like to change that.

    Second is the regulatory bottleneck. In India, regulation takes so long. It takes long to get permission, and it is all grey as somewhere someone tweaks it a little bit to get ahead of the others in the deal which is not right. Regulations are not transparent, honest and upfront. This is really a big issue. For instance, currently the government is working on penalty charges for real estate delays in projects but there is no penalty for the government when it delays or postpones its responsibilities. In pharmaceuticals, if you ask for the trial and approval in the USA, they will give it to you within 24 days. If you don’t get an approval, then you can start your project but here in India, the time varies from six months to one year and that is very frustrating. Two things are lacking: vision and then getting the process right.

    GJ: So, have you ever thought of joining the Rajya Sabha?

    SP: No, I’ve never thought about joining the Rajya Sabha but I definitely want to be the Health Minister of the country one day. I really like to do things that have an impact.

    GJ: In spite of achieving so much, are there any positions you’re still eyeing at?

    SP: What I’d like to do is make an impact somewhere. If there was a position that I’d like to be, it would be the Health Minister of India. I am not joking about it. It is because I really think that policy can make a huge impact. In government, policy can make a huge impact; it can affect the lives of thousands of people. And only the government gets scale unlike any other company. However, the spending that India does is so little that I feel the Health Ministers have not been able to make an impact because the health care scale is very tiny.

    GJ: Does that mean you are planning to get into mainstream politics?

    SP: No, I am not going to get into politics and so, I don’t think I’ll ever be a Health Minister. I think whoever is running the health ministry can make a huge impact. I would like to work with the government in creating impact. But I would not get into politics. That is not my real goal.

    GJ: There are approximately 600 million people in India who do not have access to the right medicines. What are your suggestions for developing policies for eradication of disease?

    SP: I recommended a whole bunch of policies, not one. Invest in innovation, invest in affordable drugs, make sure your regulations go on time, invest in something like universal health coverage that everyone should have, every man, woman and child, especially those who don’t have a voice need to be covered, so focus on low cost insurance policy and so many. Government should tax bidi smoking to 80% to 90% of its price to make India tobacco free.

    GJ: How would you assess your journey as a reformer?

    SP: When I was 19, just graduated from medical college, I saw a polio struck girl with crutches. For me, it was the most horrific sight that the girl could not run or walk properly, like other normal kids. Then and there I took the decision to fight polio. People were superstitious and thought that polio is a Devi or a demon which went into the child. They used silver, tried other methods to prevent it. They were simply ignorant to the fact that one dose of polio can cure it all. I, along with my committee, started treating 25,000 kids to put more effort on prevention. As part of the awareness programme, some of my friends would sing and dance in Marathi and performed skits to give the message that polio was not a demon but only a virus and if they would give their child that one injection, it would be fine. My father-in-law owned a textile mill. I had this idea and went and asked my father-in-law to donate 10,000 meters of cloth which cost me Rs 10 then. I gave one meter of cloth to every mother who finished all the three polio dosage as an incentive. This proved to be the best thing because these mothers stitched baba suits for their babies and many of the local kids wore the same colourful stripped clothes. It was the first time I realized that an intervention can make a difference; that a person can make a difference. Ten years after that we closed the rehabilitation center.  It was also the first time I realized the value of public health and I was determined to know more. If an individual plans an early intervention, the cost of prevention becomes lower than what it might be in later stages. It’s a simple fact. It was soon thereafter that Piramal took over Nicholas laboratories and became a pharma company.

    GJ: Can you tell me about the health awareness campaigns by Piramal on Osteoporosis?

    SP: All people knew that old people in the family would slip in the bathroom, get factures and end in bed till their death. I started OSTOP India to stop osteoporosis. The project stressed on finding out whether bones are strong or not. I conducted a study in 30-40 schools and found out that every teacher has osteoporosis. It was a shocking truth that people did not get enough Vitamin D in the bones. Thereafter, I initiated various other health awareness programmes on epilepsy, chronic diseases and so on.

    GJ: What drives you to help other people?

    SP: I was always attracted to medicine. To me, it was a way of living, a way of helping people, a way of taking responsibility of other people’s health. Another memory which influenced me much in my early days is that my cousin brother was regularly taken to the doctor for vaccination. I did not know what it was but once my brother got an allergic response to the vaccination and the baby became blue in the face. My mother ran around screaming for the family doctor. The doctor came, gave some medicines and the child recovered. I was surprised by the respect that my family members had for the doctor for saving the little one. Everybody said, ‘Wow what a person!’ So, I wanted to become like that, and it was an inspiration to me. When people’s health is affected and you can heal them, that is the biggest reward in life. Nothing else takes that space.

    GJ: Could you share with us anecdotes related to how people appreciate your work?

    SP: When my team and I invented a new medicine called Rejoint for arthritis, it was a huge success. I remember how people would come to me and say thank you doctor for giving us this medicine. One person came and touched my feet - these are prized feelings. They were grateful that they didn’t have the pain – so that they could live a normal life, go out and do many things which they couldn’t do earlier. So today, in every part of medicine that we are working upon as a company, we have this additional public health anchor. And it has won for the company a lot of good will, a lot of reputation, won them friends everywhere and it can’t be replaced easily.

    GJ: I was reading about Pratham India. Can you tell us a little bit about it because to me it is a revolution, 3.3 million children touched by the initiative?

    SP: Actually, we didn’t start it. It was an NGO started by one of our board members Mr. Vaghul who introduced Ajay to Pratham. He was totally fascinated with the whole idea of accelerated learning that you could teach a child who could not read and the child could read in a few weeks. And that joy in the child’s face when he could actually read is something just amazing. It is really a wonderful institution, and it has won so many awards, and Ajay is the chairman of Pratham India, but again, despite it being the largest NGO, it’s still a drop in the ocean because India has so many children and you don’t have the wherewithal and the team and the teacher to teach every single child.

    GJ: Do you think Indian education system needs to be modified to meet the needs of the society?

    SP: We do something in the education field. It was a trust by someone else, we fund it now. It was called the Kaivalya Education trust, now it is called the Piramal School of Leadership. We train head masters in rural schools on leadership and there is a set curriculum method of inculcating ideas of creativity, innovation, learning and that has been a very successful programme in the state of Rajasthan. And people want us to carry it out all over India. But again, we do not have that many people. So, in 800 municipal schools in Mumbai they are getting this kind of different training and we are part of this service; that makes us present in Mumbai, Rajasthan, and Gujarat where we are trying out the whole idea of training headmasters. We can train a headmaster because he is a natural leader of so many teachers and that leads to real creativity and it has brought amazing number of changes, productivity in education, more people attending school, dropouts have been few, they are able to get in new ways of training children, make it fun and creative rather than being strenuous. The experiments just began four or five years ago and we have to wait, of course, for the children to grow old to see if they have worked.

    GJ: Tell me a little bit about the spiritual side to you?

    SP: They always say that child is the father of man and in this case, my son taught me the lesson. He was 17 when he went to Italy, to study art and architecture. He (Anand) was bemused by the Italian architecture. His teacher, however, said that India has got more; it has 3,500 years of philosophy, which is so old and ancient, yet practical. After returning home, he asked if he could learn philosophy and so Ajay and I arranged for someone who could teach him Vedic science. Young Swami Sattwick ji came every Saturday. In three or four months, we finished the summary of the Gita. It happened ten years ago and even today, we study the Gita. Philosophy is about interpretation, how you can apply it in real life. Ajay and I wrote a book together on “18 Management lessons of Gita” from 18 Verses and how we applied it.  Whatever you do, you must build it world class. Whether it is the safety of employees, the quality of products, for environment, we want to be the best.

    GJ: Anand was a part of the Dia Movement, he went on a toothpaste campaign in villages and has been accompanied by you; and your daughter Nandini has been handling operations for four years now in Canada and has contributed largely to the company. It reflects that in the Piramal family, the second generation is as able as the first generation. How do you see it?

    SP: When you are doing parenting, you don’t know immediately what’s right and what’s wrong until late but for the children, you have to walk the talk, you have to live the values that you give them. I made sure that our kids had the tool of knowledge. At the under graduate level, both my kids went to very good universities. Nandini to Oxford, Anand to UPenn; then Nandini went to Stanford and Anand went to Harvard. They have the benefit of having a good education. One thing special is that both my children are interested in the development of the rural areas.

    GJ: What is your greatest strength?

    SP: It is enthusiasm, curiosity, wanting to know more about life and being happy in whatever I’m doing.

    GJ: You have co-authored books and you also have eclectic taste on art and music. How would you say you live life to the fullest?

    SP: If something interests me, I would do an intensive research, find out correct answers and would get to the bone of the matter. I recently became interested in all kinds of things like 19th century literature.

    GJ: How do you manage your time?

    SP: One simple thing that most people don’t do is, for example, they don’t read emails every day and that is an example of less efficiency. If you can respond very quickly to somebody, it increases your productivity. I manage a couple of hours on my computer as it helps me to respond well and it helps me in research and knowledge. New morning distraction is my granddaughter who is one year old. I have lots of hobbies like cooking, photography, making short documentary films, reading about good foods.

    GJ: You’re one of the best persons to throw theme parties too. If you could share something on this front.

    SP: The latest was the Ecuadorians Party because I discovered the chocolate grown by Red Indians who had cocoa trees of hundred years and that was rare from Equador. At a Wedding party of my friend’s son, I made Ecuadorian chocolate. It’s not about selling but about spreading the love and laughter. The party lasted after the party, as people can take a part of the sweet in the evening back home. It lasts much longer.

    GJ: While walking down the corridor I saw art pieces by MF Husain and others. What about art appeals to you so much?

    SP: My husband understands more. As you walk down the other corridor, you will find art of a kind of period like the East India company type of art, and company school of arts, Bengal school of arts, Tagore’s and J. P. Ganguly and Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose – all of their piece of art is here, what they thought about India as they took the first step abroad, and how they got Picasso’s influence. My son’s office is a crazy place; he’s got a young artist, sheep walking across, and colours. Both my children like contemporary art.

    GJ: You also have a taste for music?

    SP: I like to hear music though I cannot keep a tune. I cannot tell you the difference between ragas. I know whether I like it or not, I am an appreciator of music rather than a musically inclined person.

    GJ: While walking down, I found that each room was named after the characters from Mahabharata/Bhagavad Gita. Is it so?

    SP: All my rooms are named after Arjun, one person because he had to learn, he had to persevere and had humility, fight for dharma and right things and did not give up, persevere and these are all attributes you need in business.

    GJ: Of all the awards and accolades that you have received, which one is the most prized?

    SP: The one which the French government honoured me with is the prized one because of the name which was something like Chevalier as I like the idea of chivalry and of course, it was from a foreign government. And then, Harvard Board of Overseas nominated me to the board which started in 1637, almost four hundred years old.

    GJ: What are the remarkable things in your journey; acknowledgement is important but to get into action, what makes you such a good executer?

    SP: I think it’s about perseverance because at first, you can say its too difficult then you can say I have too many challenges and then, you can fail a few times but it’s about being dogged and not getting sidestepped by people who feel you can’t do it or sidestepped by people who say this is not a good way or this is not a good strategy.

    GJ: Who is your role model?

    SP: The woman whom I met at Assocham was the President of Chile; she is a doctor as well.

    GJ: If you had to give an advice to the youth of India today, what will it be?

    SP: Always take time to know more, always be very enthusiastic about what you do, have sincerity of purpose, and have a higher goal, look for something outside yourself. Do more for the people and community around. And I’m very hopeful about the future generation.

    GJ: Looking forward, what are your dreams and goals is the next 20 years?

    SP: For me, it’s very simple - to reduce the burden of disease. I have done only one drop in the ocean and it is still huge. Talk to families, they have one problem or the other and when you ask them, they say I have this problem and I can’t find a cure for it. My dream is to specifically look into cancer, find a new drug for cancer, diabetes. I look for new medicines.



    If ever the story of a woman responsible for carving the fate of a bank was to be written, the protagonist would be Chanda Kochhar. From starting out as a young trainee, to taking over key departments with quiet ease, to finally holding the reins of one of the largest banks in the country in her hands, few have made leadership look as effortless or as easy as she has. If her parents laid the foundation for that famous tenacity, here she tells us about the invaluable role of her mentors and why the word ‘stress’ is altogether absent from this CEO’s life.      

    GJ: What part of your personality has been influenced by your father?  

    CK: I think a lot about how I am is influenced by my father. When I was growing up, there was a lot of focus on education. We lived in a gender-neutral environment, which, in the Sixties, was unusual in a place like Jaipur. I had a basic approach to life, with the usual middle class values and ethics. We believed that it didn’t matter what you are doing, all that mattered was that you did it well. My basic grounding happened during that ten-to-twelve-year period. 

    GJ: What about your mother? How much of who you are today has been influenced by her? 

    CK: I would give her the credit for my tenacity. I did see her transit from one role to another in a very seamless manner. When my father was alive, she was really a true homemaker. Then, suddenly, she had to take on the responsibility of having to finish educating three children. She made sure that the three of us grew up to be self-reliant, career-oriented, and educated. Not only did she play a very important role but she also moved from being one person to another, playing each part so well. So a considerable part of my personality comes from her mental strength.  

    GJ: You joined ICICI in 1984. At any point during these last three decades, did you feel disadvantaged because you were a woman?

    CK: I will not say that I faced hurdles, but I do think that in these last so many years, there have  been many changes, even in the external environment. When I started my career, there were many organizations where I did not even apply, because it was known that women were not accepted in those organizations. However, ICICI was very gender neutral, and there were no issues. There, it was no big deal that a young girl in her early twenties was asked to visit factories and inspect sites. So, I would not say that I faced any hurdles as such.   

    GJ: During the 1980s, India’s business sphere was very male dominated, and the men were not very accepting of women coming into it. What or who were your support systems? 

    CK: My two big support systems were my organization and my family. So, regardless of whatever outside visits I did, I would always come back to my job and my family.

    GJ: At Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, you met the two most important people of your life, namely, Deepak Kochhar and K.V. Kamath. Could you share with us the role that the latter has played in your life as a mentor?  

    CK: Mr Kamath has played a very important role throughout my journey. He was the first person who interviewed me when I entered the ICICI building. Subsequently, by trusting me with more responsibilities and accountabilities, he mentored me and helped me develop my skills. Most importantly, he always had faith in me. Any situation that I found myself in could be classified into three types, and Mr Kamath played his role in each one of these three cases. First, there were things that I did on my own, which I didn’t even need to tell him. In this case, he trusted me with enough responsibility and authority to continue to do the things that I was doing. Second, there were some things that I could choose to do and execute on my own, but I felt it was important for me to inform him, which I did. Third, there were situations where I knew that I needed his advice, and he would always be there to give it to me. The one common factor in all the different situations was that he never dictated anything. It was always up to me to take decisions, in a manner that I felt most comfortable with. And yet, if I ever needed his advice, he was always available. I would say that his biggest contribution was that I always had that confidence that he was around, but at the same time, he allowed me all the independence to contribute to this business that we have built together thus far. 

    GJ: When you were assistant general manager (AGM) of the regional office, you made a presentation where you spoke about the changes that needed to be made. When Mr Kamath asked you if you had asked anyone about these changes, you said that you hadn’t asked anybody. What did you feel in that moment? Was there any nervousness?

    CK: In that moment, I thought that maybe I’d done something wrong by not taking anyone’s permission or asking anyone about the changes. However, I spoke the truth, and that was more important.

    GJ: Today, you are known for taking unprecedented decisions. What propelled you to have more faith in yourself and in the decisions you make? Did your experience at that presentation have any impact on your decision-making skills?

    CK: Yes, it did; it influenced me in two ways. One, it gave me more confidence in myself. I realized that I had the ability to make the right decisions and that I should take the initiative and keep moving forward. Secondly, it also conveyed to me that I have a mentor who has a lot of confidence in me and who actually wants me to elevate myself to a place where I can take whatever decision I have to and keep moving on. So, it built my confidence in both ways; it gave me self-confidence and it gave me the confidence that I was doing what people wanted and expected me to do. 

    GJ: In 1993, you were Asst. General Manager, and you were asked to lead the bank. In an earlier interview, you have identified this experience as a defining moment in your life. Please tell us more. 

    CK: That experience was valuable in many ways. Firstly, for the country as a whole, because this was the time when new banks were being established. Mr Vaghul, who was the chairman of ICICI at the time, said that for the past fifty years, nobody had set up a bank and that banks only set up branches. So, in that sense, it was an important step for the country. Secondly, of course, ICICI was never a bank, so for the institution itself it was a big step in a new direction. For me, it was like learning everything from the scratch. I started with reading about banks, how to design pay slips, and what a cheque book is. I also met with many public sector bankers to better understand how technology is used or not used, how things work, and how structures are formed. This included everything from something as mundane as what a paying slip should look like to deciding the most important aspects such as the technology architecture of the bank. So, all in all, it was something that was unique, with new experiences, and at the same time, it was a very comprehensive learning experience. 

    GJ: In 2001, you took over retail, and in five short years, you took it from one per cent to sixty-seven. Was there any mantra that you followed to achieve that kind of growth?

    CK: First and foremost, you need to realize that retail is a game of scale. If you don’t achieve certain economies of scale, the business will not pay off. So, at the time, we felt that it was imperative for us to achieve that scale. The way we made it happen was to focus considerably on the building blocks. The goal was quite clear, and we invested all our energy in working on the building blocks that would help us achieve this goal. Proper technology, architecture, and manpower skills were very important. We had to build a risk management system that was very different from the corporate one; we needed one that could handle the large volumes of business. We were doing everything that was different from what other banks were doing so as to carve a niche for ourselves. We brought ATMs, infrastructure, call centres, technologies, especially at the backend, to carry out almost every transaction. We also invested considerably in risk management systems and we recruited people from outside; in that sense, we really focused on building the building blocks. That said, at the time, there were 200 to 300 ATMs in the country, so we decided to set up 2000 ICICI Bank ATMs. To some extent, some of the steps we took were much bigger than just building blocks. 

    GJ: What kind of professional risk was involved when you took the step in 2001? What propelled you to decide ‘okay, let’s do it’?

    CK: It was a huge professional risk. However, challenges excite me, and so I took this as one more challenge and one more thing to learn. When presented with the challenge, I said yes, I will take this challenge and I will make it happen. Additionally, another thing that worked was that the organization had faith and confidence in me. Even for them to pick me, someone who did not have any retail background, was reassuring. Mr Kamath said that they wanted me to take it because they knew that I could do it; words like that further built my confidence. Consequently, I was able to move forward with the confidence that I would be successful.

    GJ: In 2007, you were the official spokesperson for ICICI as well as joint managing director, both of which were heavy titles. How did you manage all of it? 

    CK: I was deeply involved with business-related jobs, both infrastructure and corporate retail, and they were very different from finance and strategy or being a spokesperson. For a while, I thought that should I continue doing my old job, but again, the organization urged me to move forward, and to take on newer responsibilities. That was the reason why I took that job, and it made me look at the organization in a completely different manner. Now, I can look at it from the point of view of control functions of various businesses, and put myself in many different shoes so that I can correctly gauge what needs to be done. 

    GJ: Could you share with us your thought processes during that one year (2008–2009) when you decided on the no-growth policy?

    CK: It was both the external environment and the internal structure that necessitated that. The external environment was becoming volatile and it became necessary for us to reduce some of the risks in our own portfolio, and secondly, it was because of the growth that we had in the past. So, both these aspects led me to believe that the no-growth policy was the right step to take. Although it was not very difficult to arrive at that decision, it was difficult to move ahead and implement it. I spent nine months between 2008 and 2009 meeting people and convincing them that this was the right strategy.  

    GJ: Did you ever have any moments of self-doubt, when you thought your strategy may not work or that the media or investors may take their money back? 

    CK: There was skepticism in terms of whether I meant what I said, because the environment was such. There was also skepticism about whether we would be able to achieve it, because I was sitting in the investors’ meeting and I was telling people that we will not grow, that we will cut down costs, which was exactly opposite to what was happening in the industry. In a sense, what I was saying was the complete reverse of the industrial trends at the time, so my views were met with skepticism regarding whether we would be able to achieve what we were saying we could do. There were also some who said that we were not acting like the ICICI Bank that they knew and liked. Consequently, there were some investors who decided to opt out; they did not feel comfortable with the strategy. So, there were some moments where people doubted me, but I was quite convinced that what I was doing was the right strategy in the long term. I think the skeptics were those who were looking at it from a short-term perspective. At this stage, I needed to have conviction in my belief. Only when a leader is convinced, can s/he convey that conviction to the team; and it is only then that the team is able to execute the strategy. 

    GJ: In an interview, you once said that you consider yourself to be ICICI Bank’s employee number one, and that even though you received several lucrative offers at the time, you chose to stay with the bank and grow along with it. To what would you attribute your fierce loyalty? 

    CK: It is a mixture of job satisfaction, support from co-workers and a sense of dedication from my end. The foremost thing is that as I was progressing in my career, and as the organization was growing, evolving and diversifying, there was plenty to do and even more to learn. Although I have spent twenty-eight years with the organization, it’s not that I’ve done just one job. The organization ventured into so many businesses, and I was most fortunate to be there when new businesses were being set up. In a way, it was a very entrepreneurial experience for me, where I was setting up new businesses, learning from them and growing with them; I don’t think there was ever a dull moment. Second, ethos is in the organization’s DNA, and once I started working at ICICI, I just became a part of it; to the extent that even my children say that I don’t see beyond that. In a way, it became a part of my life, and I don’t think I can think of any other option. Of course, I won’t undermine the fact that I also put in as much in those assignments and jobs, as they required considerable learning, work, and traveling, but I enjoyed every aspect of the effort that I was putting in. 

    GJ: It must require considerable mental tenacity in order to achieve what you have done. Could you share with us how your typical work day is structured? How do you beat the stress?

    CK: Mental tenacity is an important aspect of anybody’s journey. Since my work day is always rather long, I like to wake up before my son wakes up to go to school. I start my day by first figuring out what is required in the house for that day; I need to do this before I leave home. I wake up very early, and in that sense, my mind is ticking and working all day. In fact, when I come home, it’s not like my mind can switch off from office because I don’t think that happens when you are so engrossed in your work. So essentially, it’s like living two lives together. Consequently, I generally don’t sleep for eight hours, as most people do, but since I am doing the things that I want to do, it doesn’t give me any real stress. I think that’s important: I am doing it out of choice, and so it takes away the stress.

    GJ: What about the stress that comes with having to take decisions on a minute-to-minute basis? How do you manage to keep the clarity and focus that is required for your job? 

    CK: To be honest, you simply can’t allow the stress to get to you in such a manner that you have to struggle with unwinding. The more you allow stress to affect you, the more time you need to de-stress. The time that I spend with my family, whether it’s going for movies or even short holidays or just sitting at home, that’s the best way for me to unwind. Moreover, there really is nothing else beyond that which I get time for. The ability to balance the two lives gives me tremendous satisfaction, and that helps me keep stress at bay. 

    GJ: You are known as the ‘iron lady’ of banking; you are at the helm of ICICI Bank, and today, the bank is viewed as one of the most valued banks in the country. Can you share with us your leadership philosophy? 

    CK: Firstly, a leader has to keep an eye on the environment and proactively ensure that the organization is ready for any changes in it. One can either follow a reactive leadership policy or a proactive leadership policy, but I think it is better to anticipate changes in the environment and keep the organization ready for those changes, instead of simply reacting to them. Also, a leader has to be the right mix of a visionary and a realist. You need to remain very close to reality, and at the same time, you need to envision where you will be in the next five years. Thirdly, I believe that whatever the strategy may be, it is the leader who decides the strategy and explains to the team what the strategy is and why it is important. 

    GJ: Amongst your many awards and accolades, you received the Padma Bhushan in 2011. Do share with us how it felt to receive one of the highest honours of our country?

    CK: I must say that it was a humbling experience, because to me, it was an absolute surprise. I actually watched it on TV and got a few phone calls. I reiterate, it was a pleasant surprise and a humbling experience. I think the nation was looking up to me because I was able to fulfill many goals that were beyond just running an organization. However, that also meant that the responsibilities on my shoulders were that many more.

    GJ: You met your husband in college, and you have shared a very warm family life. Can you tell us how the dynamics worked for you? What would be your advice to a working mother? 

    CK: It works both ways, so both partners have to be given credit for it. It is also important for both to find their respective goals, rather than trying to do a common thing and messing it up. I feel that there is so much to do in life that you can leave some things for one person to do and some things for the other to do; this ensures that there is less interference with both trying to do the same thing. Similarly, at home, if one of us decides something, the other just goes along with it, or just convinces the other person to change his/her mind. It’s more like you decided this, so you do this, and I’ve decided this, so I’ll do this, or we could both do it. 

    That is one aspect, and a lot of people talk about cooperation, but I think it has to be much more than that. For a relationship to be sustainable, I think there also has to be respect for one other. You genuinely have to feel happy about the other person’s growth and progress, at least that is what I feel: to know that it’s just not cooperation from my family, but that they are genuinely happy with every step that I take. That is what gives me the courage to keep moving forward. Simple cooperation with no happiness would not allow me to move ahead; it’s the genuine happiness for me and the pride in what I am doing that motivates me to achieve more. You have to have that mutual respect and love because that’s what makes a relationship work. 

    GJ: You are an inspiration to millions. How does that feel? Do you feel guilty about not spending enough time with your children?

    CK: That I am able to inspire and motivate so many other women gives me satisfaction, but more importantly, I feel humbled. I see other mothers who spend much more time with their children than I do. But I believe that as long as my children grow up well, I have nothing to feel guilty about. Nonetheless, I do spend less time with my children, and I cannot run away from that. 

    GJ: You have already accomplished so much in these thirty years. What lies ahead? What are some of the immediate goals that you have set for yourself?

    CK: There’s a lot to be done in ICICI itself. Moreover, my children are still young, and I need to see them through their respective growths, careers, marriage, and more. Thereafter, if I get the time, there’s a lot to be done for the society as well. 

    GJ: You are one of the youngest bankers in the country; how would you like to be remembered?

    CK: I would like to be remembered as Chanda Kochhar!



    She was ten when she got engaged; her husband-to-be was 14. Ask the grand matriarch of the Birla family today what her initial days after marriage was like and she smilingly tells you how ‘bizarre’ she felt moving into the legendary Birla home back then. The first Birla bahu to get a college degree, Rajashree Birla was already a mother when she decided she must complete her education. Perhaps it was intuition that drove her to it, preparing her for the monumental role she would go on to play in the family business.  

    GJ: There’s very little written on your childhood, especially about your days in Madurai. Could you share with us about your earlier days?

    RB: I was born in Bikaner, Rajasthan and grew up in Madurai. I did my schooling and half of my college there. Naturally I picked up the language — Tamil — and going to school was part of the day’s routine. Being from an orthodox family, we were not allowed to go on picnics and trips. But we were very happy and never forced our mother to allow us to go on outings. We just accepted the denial of permission.  

    GJ: You got engaged at very young age at the age of 10 …

    RB: And my husband was 14. But the feeling that I was married didn’t sink in until I was 14 or 15. 

    GJ: You said that you grew to be a Birla bahu from a very young age… 

    RB: After the age of 14 or 15, I used to spend my summer holidays in Calcutta. I used to go to Birla Park and Ma would say a lot about several things just to make me feel at home. 

    GJ: Which aspect of your personality has been influenced by your own mother?

    RB: My mother is very loveable and she wants to give a lot of love to everyone around her. She was from Phungra family and she is the oldest and she was used to taking care of everyone. She was very friendly and she had many friends. Though I was a shy girl, I used to watch her and I picked up a few of her nice qualities. My father was also a very simple man. However, my mother played the main role and my childhood was smooth.

    GJ: What were your feelings regarding Mr. Birla, what was your emotional state like in becoming part of the Birla legacy? 

    RB: I took it in my stride since I had been going there for 3 or 4 years before I got married and I sort of knew everyone. And Dauji was very affectionate and he would just treat me like a friend and he would talk to me very freely. Like once he was reading a newspaper and I popped into the room and he said he was seeing whether his name was featured in the obituary section. He would give a lot of love and affection to us. I was lucky to have lived with him for 10 to 12 years. At that time, I was also more occupied with my children. May be if he had lived a little more, I would have learnt more from him. He used to tell me that he would die one fine day while being proactive and I used to wonder how anyone could say something like that. But it actually happened like that. He was in London, that morning he did his office work and then he went for a walk. He was in Regent Street and told someone that he was feeling a bit uncomfortable. And next we knew he was gone!

    In the initial period, living in a place completely new to you makes everything pretty bizarre. And I was also going to college at that time; I would be in a saree while the rest of them would be in salwar kameez. But it didn’t bother me that much. 

    GJ: Is it true that you are the first Birla daughter-in-law to get a college degree? How did that happen?

    RB: Yes, I was. Actually my mother-in-law would have finished her BA but that was the year in which she contracted TB. So she couldn’t attain her degree. Everyone in the family got married quite early and that is the reason why many of them could not get the degrees that they aspired to achieve. 

    GJ: Did you have to persuade people to let you finish education? At that time, for Marwaris, especially girls, it was very difficult to go to college. How did you cope with those responsibilities? 

    RB: I think that’s the advantage of living in a joint family. I used to go to college and Ma used to look after Kumar Mangalam and he was also very attached to his bua. So everything taken together, somehow things fell into place. 

    GJ: Can you share with us some memories of your initial married years? 

    RB: With 10 or 12 friends we had gone on our honeymoon to Ranchi. So that was a little unusual. 

    GJ: Can you recall any other anecdotes from those years before you joined the corporate world?

    RB: I remember we had gone on a holiday to Darjeeling and good-quality milk was not available. After 3 weeks when we returned, Dauji saw that Kumar has grown a little thinner so he asked me what happened and I mentioned the unavailability of proper milk. He wanted to know why I hadn’t ordered for it from Kolkata. I said that such a thing hadn’t occurred to me at all. So this is what Dauji was like. 

    GJ: I want to know about the parenting techniques you used at that time because today everybody talks about how you brought up your children…

    RB: From childhood, Kumar Mangalam was a very sincere boy and he always gave his best in everything that he pursued. We never told him that he has to stand first or get a certain high percentage but somehow because he was hard working, intelligent and sincere, he always achieved excellence. Somehow, I never sat down and explained like you know the basic values of life to my children. So even now when my daughter says something I feel that she thought it in a different way and respect her thoughts. 

    GJ: If I ask you to describe the Birla legacy, how would you do it?  

    RB: My grandfather-in-law’s grandfather, I think, was the first one to move out of Pilani and set up small businesses. Then Dauji was just 14 years old and I think he was married and he had come to Ahmedabad on a camel because there were no railways at that time. So it’s very interesting to know how he developed the whole group that started first with the mill and then he went on to buy textile mills, so that’s how the business grew little by little. Ours was a very close-knit joint family. Even after Dauji passed away we didn’t know who’s going to be getting what because the joint family concept was there. And all occasions like Diwali, we celebrated together as a family. We used to go to the eldest of the family and do puja there and every Sunday we used to go for lunch to Birla House. These are some of the things which we miss now.

    GJ: What has made Birla family so successful? Are there any common traits that have been seen across generations? What’s made every generation as successful or what are the traits that have been carried forward? 

    RB: They have seen their fathers and their grandfathers work so hard and it is also genetic. I think it’s very difficult to pin point, but definitely blessings from god and the value systems.

    GJ: If you could share with us about any family get-togethers that happen on an annual basis? 

    RB: Yes, we get together when there is a marriage in the family but not as often.

    GJ: You have worked very much on women welfare and empowerment, how do you think women in India have changed over the last two decades both in rural and urban? 

    RB: In rural India, we’ve seen a lot of difference. With television and everything I think they are aware of what’s happening and there are lots of government schemes for the rural people especially for girls. All these put together I think there’s a lot of difference and women are more confident and aware. They are also quite bold now compared to what used to be earlier. 

    GJ: But do you think that women are not completely free or that society has to evolve to give women the right that they deserve?

    RB: Yes. And I think more than anybody else they have to be told that the husbands are superior to the wives. They should be on equal terms. And I think this will really make a difference. The boys are still used to seeing their grand mothers and their mothers being at home and being obedient. Well that’s not going to be happening now. And, now the boys have to realize that. 

    GJ: You are so much involved with the grass root level. Do you think, at the grass root level women are still suffering?  

    RB: Nowadays, this concept of self-help group for ladies is really becoming very successful. And in the process, women come out of the house and they meet other ladies, they work in a group and are also taught how to maintain their accounts. They are becoming more and more intelligent. 

    GJ: Do you feel the Indian joint family system puts huge expectations on women in terms of responsibilities? 

    RB: I think their first duty is to bring up their children. When the children start going to school, the women can take up hobbies or small business but their first priority should be bringing up their children. 



    She has followed a few rules, and created many more, and those are the only ones she lives by today. With no formal or technical training in fashion, Anamika Khanna will tell you that it was her ‘good fortune’ that she knew nothing about fashion before she ventured forth. It gave her the chance to start at the beginning, unhindered, unencumbered. Today, the styles she creates are unmistakably hers alone…the subtlety, class and singularity of her designs make her one of the most watched-for names in world fashion. 

    GJ: You don’t have a degree in fashion. What prompted you to take up fashion as a career? 

    AK: I have been a student of science, but creativity is in my genes; my nani (grandmother) and my mother have been such fine artists. I can’t remember a time when I have not been creative: whether it was decorating the house, or taking my needlework seriously, or winning awards at classical dance competitions, or striving to create a perfect painting. I heard about the Damania fashion awards, and sent across some sketches, which got short-listed. I realized I was going to present a collection, and if there was one thing that I was going to stive for, it was originality. Neither did I want to ‘copy-paste’ somebody else’s work, nor did I want to improvize on an already existing piece of work. I looked for new fabrics, and used original concepts like hand painting on embroidery and different layers of colour. 

    GJ: What was your idea of success when you started out?

    AK: My parameters of success are very different from what is generally perceived. I still have a long way to go despite having made a long journey in terms of my work. 
    I wish I could sit back, make a plan, and follow it. I feel I would achieve much more than I do now by letting myself be guided to go along with the flow. I have never sold a piece of garment myself, and I have never told anybody to buy my creations. I have been fortunate enough to have committed staff; I simply create and give my suggestions. While earlier I made sure I was aware of every trend and move in the fashion world, today, it doesn’t matter. 

    GJ: Is it because you create trends yourself?

    AK: I don’t know if I create trends; I simply follow my heart. Every individual has different ideas and perceptions, and there is no trend per se. One day, it’s something and the second day, it’s something else. 

    GJ: Can you define a typical Anamika Khanna creation? What is your style statement? 

    AK: My creations reflect my idea of a modern woman—subtle, never screaming for attention, extremely feminine and sexy, without revealing what they are going to bathe in...  Each piece of clothing I design is an individual creation, and I follow no rules while designing them. 

    GJ: You are credited for bringing ‘minimalism’ into Indian dressing, where one doesn’t need any jewellery because the garment stands out and makes the woman shine, speaking for itself and for the wearer...

    AK: Sometimes, you notice the diamonds, the shoes, and the watch, but you forget to see the woman wearing them. You take in every detail of the garment, but you forget to notice the face wearing it. I don’t like it when the outfit is so overpowering that you forget to ask the name of the person wearing it! My creations don’t overshadow the people wearing them; rather they enhance their whole look. 

    GJ: What goes on in your mind when you are creating garments?

    AK: Don’t hide yourself in the clothes that you wear. Why should more embroidery mean that the outfit is more expensive? I have to-be brides calling me and saying they simply want to wear me; that it doesn’t matter what it is. Now that is truly a moment of pride for me when people put their complete trust in me. But that’s really tough because I do not know what each one’s type is. So I end up trusting myself, and creating something unique for each person.  I do not ‘judge’; there is nothing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in my dictionary. I guess that is what helps me create what I do.

    GJ: Where do you get your inspiration for creativity from?

    AK: It is stress; I perform under pressure! Everyone knows that if I am stressed, I will deliver. But if I am having a smooth conversation in office, I will produce nothing! Of course, you need to keep your mind and eyes open. Inspiration can come from anywhere, anytime. After a show is over, if someone comes and asks me what my inspiration was, I feel like saying: I don’t know! 

    GJ: What is ‘glamour’ to you? 

    AK: It is not something you can generalize. I will give you an example. Take a rickshaw-wallah. If he wears a ganji, or a shirt, or some neck-breaker pendant... that, to me, is more glamorous than a woman who buys a designer outfit, is in the right shoes, and carries the right bag. Glamour is not restricted to spending money, or to a certain section of the society. Fashion is everywhere. While for you it might be that pair of sunglasses, for someone else it might be that extra white bangle that they bought.  It’s in the mind! 

    GJ: What makes a woman sexy?

    AK: Above anything else, it is her attitude that makes a woman sexy. When you walk into a party and you know you are the odd one out, yet you can be who you are... that, to me, is sexy. If you know yourself and know your skin, you can look sexy in a high-collared blouse and sari. If you are able to make a conversation, let your eyes sparkle, and smile genuinely, that is sexy. Pretensions are boring! 

    GJ: Where does Indian fashion stand today?

    AK: We are still trying to find our footing. It is a very young industry in India. While the world has indulged in fashion for hundreds of years, we have not even played in it for fifty years. We have a lot of hope, but we are still grappling with things. It will take some time.  We have to understand and identify our USP for not just ourselves, but also for other people. For example, give me one good reason for buying a little black dress from an Indian designer, and not from a European one. As an Indian designer, my USP is my craft which nobody else in the world has. Indian designers need to believe in this, and then sell their wares. I don’t want to make western clothes which are available all over the world on high streets. 

    GJ: You are a non-conformist in a conformist role. Born into a Marwari family, you chose to marry into a Punjabi family. Were your parents-in-law supportive towards your work?

    AK: It was a strange time; I was nineteen when I got married. During times when I had a show coming up, I would get back home at odd hours.My mother-in-law would bless me with all her heart. When I used to go to college from my in-laws’ house, my father-in-law would get me chocolates everyday. My life would have been miserable had it not been for their support. 

    GJ: Given your busy work schedule, do you feel guilty about not giving enough time to family and friends?

    AK: My children seem to have come to a certain understanding about my work. The guilt factor plays up with my mother and mother-in-law. I miss spending time with them. With my mother, I sometimes do not even return her phone calls. And it is amazing how my mother-in-law puts up with me, given my crazy schedule. We live in the same house, and sometimes I don’t get a chance to speak to her all day.

    GJ: Very little is known about Anamika Khanna, the mother, despite the fact that you are devoted to your kids. What’s your one tip on parenting? 

    AK: It is extremely important to let your children know that you are there for them, and they can talk to you about anything at all, even if it is checking whether they can have alcohol because all their friends are having it! When I was growing up, I remember there was a time when I wished my mother would go away, because she was being so difficult. Today, I understand her better. If she threw away my needle work because it was not perfect, or she made me re-do my science project because my handwriting was not good, or I had to roll chapattis again because they were not round, today, I thank her for that. 

    GJ: Is it important for a woman to play the balancing act at all times? 

    AK: You have to maintain a balance because you are a woman. However, it is important to prioritize things. I am a daughter, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother, and much more. Hence, there is a lot to balance. One understands this after going through various phases in life, which is evolutionary. For example, today, I don’t want to be a workaholic like I used to be. I will happily give up any appointment, no matter what the repercussions are, when my children have an exam and they need me. I will take time off from work, whether I have a show or not.

    GJ: What are the qualities that have helped you reach where you are today?

    AK: Over and above everything, I am a perfectionist. But I am also extremely disorganised! I wait until a design comes to me; I never copy. I create from the scratch, and from nothing. I can proudly say that it comes from a thought. That it doesn’t come from something that already exists. That is my mantra for success. 

    GJ: How have you evolved as a person from when you started out first?

    AK: To put it simply: things that mattered to me then, don’t matter to me anymore. The only thing that has remained constant is that I do everything for the love of it. Initially, I had to do things to prove myself to other people. Now, I understand that being a human being is far more important than proving anything to anyone. I don’t need to do that. I am a very different person today. I don’t believe in competing with anyone other than myself. And I believe in finding and making my own path in life.

    GJ: You are somebody who has worked hard to reach the pinnacle. What makes you so spiritually aligned? 

    AK: To me, hard work is the key to success, as clichéd as it may sound! On a parallel note, I have found awakening through books that have taught me the concept of ‘love’. I interacted with children who are victims of cancer. My perspective in life changed when I realized that some of these children may not survive the disease because their parents do not have money for the treatment. I did what I could; and the whole experience was amazing. I donated the money that I needed myself for a fashion show. It made me a better person by making me realize that I was not going to play with people’s lives to reach my goal. 

    GJ: What do you want to be remembered as?

    AK: I am someone who has the courage to make her own rules. I have discovered a few things, and created some others.  I have followed my own path, and this is what I want to remembered for.


  • Shabana Azmi

    She never misses a chance to admit the role her parents have played in shaping her into what she is today. Watching her mother ready herself for a play – dressing and living the part at home for weeks before she was to go on stage – she learnt everything about the sincerity of being an actor from Shaukat Kaifi. When she asked her father, the legendary Kaifi Azmi whether he would support her decision of being an actor, he told her she could be what she wanted – even a cobbler if she must – if she promised to strive to be the best there ever was. From him, she imbibed life’s deepest lessons. Small wonder that Shabana Azmi turned out to be one of the greatest gifts this country had received.    

    GJ:    When did you decide to take up acting as a career?

    SA:    I actually took the decision of taking acting as a career seriously when I was in college. I used to win all the inter-collegiate drama competitions. Farooq Sheikh was two years my senior and both of us used to act in all these plays, inevitably winning all the awards. When I was just completing my B.A, I saw a film by Jaya Bhaduri and I was very struck because I had never seen acting of that kind. I found it extremely mesmerising. Later, I came to know about the Film Institute and told my father that I would like to join it and pursue acting seriously and if he would support me in my decision... He said that even if I had decided that I wanted to become a cobbler, he would support me provided I tell myself that I’ll be the best cobbler in the business. I remember, even before we had this conversation, I had once told my father that I was interested in acting. So when I was pursuing B.A, I didn’t know what subject I should take. I went up to him and asked if I should take literature or psychology. He said that when it comes to literature, you can read as many books as you want on your own. But, you said that you were interested in acting, so don’t you think Psychology will help you because it will make you a top psychologist in building a character. Although he said it very casually, but I took it to heart and took up Psychology. I must say, even today, I do think that my very little understanding of it has helped me somewhere in characterization. But the fact is that I actually chose BA without any thought of what I was going to do with my life. I did BA because in my time, everyone does BA unquestioningly. But when I decided to pursue acting, I wanted to only do theatre. I had no idea that I would do it for film. 

    GJ:    Did you pre-plan your stint in parallel cinema?

    SA:    It was Shyam Benegal’s Ankur that paved the way for parallel cinema in Hindi. Before that, of course, you had Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and many more but in Hindi, just before the advent of Ankur you had very few like Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. Given that Ankur did very well commercially as well as critically; it suddenly opened the door for a lot of other filmmakers to make films with substantial roles for women. It was not like I thought about my role in Ankur or analysed it before choosing it - I chose purely on instinct. But I also consciously chose to do mainstream cinema at the same time because I felt I needed a wider audience. I had figured it in my own way that to have a wider audience, if my work in mainstream cinema became successful silver jubilees, then there would be enough interest created in me for them to watch parallel cinema too. That’s exactly what happened. I was very fortunate that films like Fakira became such big successes and I will continue to say that it did not happen because of me... I was atrocious in that film.  The fact that it did extremely well gave me a really strong foothold in mainstream commercial cinema as well as parallel cinema. Looking back, I guess, the fact that I didn’t do theatre initially but revisited it much later was definitely a sliding door. The fact that Ankur happened, really made me the face of parallel cinema.

    GJ:    When you started doing films, it was a time when women’s sensuality was coming up in mainstream cinema while parallel cinema was known for defining roles. While your films like Faasle, Ankur and Aarth paved the way for women’s empowerment movement in India. What inspired you to directly get involved in parallel and not mainstream cinema then?

    SA:    I think it just happened, particularly Ankur. Shyam told me so vaguely about the film. He had offered the role to Waheeda Rehman and she declined. He then offered it to Lakshmi from South and she refused too. He had offered it to Anju Mahendru too who had said no. So, finally, he was already so dejected that when he met me, and it was completely random the way he chose me for the role. I was much younger than he had originally planned for the role. He said how would you do the dialects – and I said – what dialects? He said Dhakini and so I started speaking to him in Dhakini. I said I was born in Hyderabad and I have relatives there and I can speak it. Following that, he narrated the story of both Ankur and Nishant and he said that you are going to be in both these films. It was as random as that! But the fact is immediately after I shot for Ankur, I went straight into shooting for Ishq Ishq Ishq. So, I was doing mainstream cinema simultaneously. But I was more inclined towards parallel cinema because I was exposed to international cinema in which I admired actors like Liv Ulmann, Ingmar Bergman and the likes. I was very fascinated by Ingmar Bergman at the Film Institute. I was very young then but I used to get really affected by his films and his performances. I realised whatever I liked, it was always serious and it was drama. So, when I started working, I found it much more engaging and pleasurable to work in parallel cinema because there was some semblance of a script, you shot it in one go, there was some continuity... It was not like the madness of mainstream commercial cinema and so, although I didn’t grab it by the horns and said that this is what I want to do, I sort of slid into it. It gave me more satisfaction. So, I grooved towards that.

    GJ:    How did your selection of roles evolve with time?

    SA:    In the beginning within parallel cinema, I would obviously consider the character, the director and the plot. In mainstream cinema, the production house and co-actor mattered – these were natural considerations keeping career enhancement possibilities in mind. For example, I had already worked with Manmohan Desai in Parvarish where both Neetu Singh and I had a substantial role. I had enjoyed working with Manmohan Desai. He then came to me and said that he was producing his first film Amar Akbar Anthony. He said that there was no role for me in the film as such but ‘vo Vinod Khanna jaankhaa jayega ki dono actors ke paas heroine hai, mere paas nahi. So, for my sake you do it.’ I really liked him very much and I loved the fact that he was so frank with me and so I agreed to do the film. This is just to illustrate that there have been varying reasons why I agreed to do certain films. For me, the size of the role doesn’t matter at all; the role itself mattered a great deal. Even today, I’ll do even one scene if I feel that this film will be helped by me doing this scene or it is saying something that needs to be said. People don’t realise that I have actually worked with the maximum number of first time film makers because I love the passion with which they work. They behave like the world would come to an end if they don’t get the shot they want. It’s nice to see that kind of energy. Today, if I have to do something, it really would be something that catches my fancy or something that I would like to encourage or if I think it is a film that is saying what needs to be said. 

    GJ: What does your checklist look like while preparing for a role?

    SA: I prepare for the role in two ways. One, from the outside where I think – what will the character look like, what will her walk be, what will she wear and all of that. And the other is internally – what is going to happen, what would she think et al. It essentially depends on the character. Off late, I am being offered either semi wicked and partially humorous characters more often, which I’ve never done before. So, that’s interesting; especially if you see my character in Matru Ki Bijli. For me, the look of the character is very important – what the character looks like and particularly, the battle with the weight – is the person fat or thin. Sometimes, I fall headlong into the path and sometimes, I only open a window and peep and find the character and then close the window only to try and enter through the door.  Then, I enter the drawing room and then the bedroom. It takes very long for me to go into the bedroom and face the mirror – saying this with respect to my character. It is sort of visiting the character in her world in little parts. I love the process of inhabiting my character. Then, of course, while you are actually shooting, changes keep happening alongside but I write copious notes on my script. You’ll never see a clean script – you’ll see so many notes adjoining notes.

    GJ: Your notes are related to your character?

    SA: I write things like - What is the sub text of this? What is she not saying? What is the continuity of the character and so on. Unlike earlier, continuity of costume and other stuff is not a problem today. But earlier, you couldn’t take any instant shots and then you have people say – ab kuch nahi ho sakta hai na! Hence, I would make a lot of notes on the script and not leave it on the assistant. I used to make notes more on the continuity of the film and character. For instance, you shoot a scene in 1984 and the next in 1986... it’s the same scene and so, the question I would ask is - what is your weight, what is your hair like and how is it all changing in the interim. 

    GJ:    In an interview, you said that you are sort of the fruit of your father. What lessons have you learnt from your mother? 

    SA:    The fact is that the actor who I am today is because of my mother; is because I learnt at her feet and I learnt by example. I saw how seriously she took her theatre work. I used to see that days before a play, she would dress up in the clothes of character and then acquire the walk, change the base – do all of that. Similarly, the way I inhabit my character, I learnt it all from her. The values that she has given me about acting and about being sincere have helped shape me as an actor and individual. Acting in mainstream is really, entirely a product of my mother who praises wholeheartedly and criticizes wholeheartedly. She instilled confidence in me. I remember, I was 9 years old and I used to study in a school called Queen Mary’s at Grant Road. When we moved to Juhu, my brother changed his school but I said that I would continue to go to the same school. I was maybe in third standard then. She sent a maid with me for three months only. The drill was that I used to take a bus from Juhu, go to Santa Cruz and from there, I would take a train. I would get down at Grant Road station and then walk 20 minutes to school. After school, if I came back even 1 minute later than 6’0’ clock, she would be there weeping. So, at 6 ‘0’ clock come what may, I had to make my appearance at the gate. But look at the amount of confidence that gave me... The fact that I had to do all that and trudge all the way to school – only because I said I want to go to that particular school. For any other parent today, they would have pulled up their child and refused. They couldn’t afford to send a maid then for thirty rupees and would have insisted that the child goes to a school close by. 

    GJ: What was it like growing up in a commune?

    SA: I grew up in a family which believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. Till the age of 9, I lived in a commune like house of the Communist Party of India, which was called The Red Ball. It was basically a large flat with 8 rooms of only 240 sqft each. There was also a little strip of a balcony which was turned into the kitchen and all the families shared a toilet and a bathroom. They were all members of the Communist Party. My father was a whole-timer and used to get only forty rupees a month. So obviously, when the kids were born, my mother had to go out and work to supplement his income because she had to look after the kids. She first joined the All India Radio and then subsequently became an actress with Prithvi Theatre. So, I imbibed the spirit of India’s composite culture almost by a process of osmosis because though there was nearly complete absence of religion, there was a great celebration of festivals. We used to go to Ganesh pandals during Ganpati festival and on 26th January, we would all be put in a truck to be taken to see the Republic day live. So, there was a big celebration of everything. Gender equality was something that we didn’t just preach, but also practice. My father’s relationship with my mother was that of equality. So was Sardar Jaffrey’s relationship with Sultana Jaffrey. But, no one paid any great attention to it because nobody sat you down and injected you with theories of the Communist Party. It was just the way you lived your life. So, ideally, I should also have been politically aware as a person but I took everything around me with such élan and so much for granted that I never gained any conscious awareness of it. I think, I was around 20 when I realized that gender equality is not the norm, it is the exception. 

    GJ: You were brought up in an atmosphere charged with politics. What influence did it have on you?

    SA: I told you I should have been someone who should really have been far more politically aware than I was. I used to take pride over the fact that I don’t even read newspapers. But, so much politics used to be discussed all around me that if someone wanted to discuss political things, I would say – I am not interested in this at all. I remember one day, MJ Akbar and Sayid Mirza had come to my house and I proudly declared that I don’t know anything about politics. Their reaction was that I should be ashamed of myself because I am Kaifi Azmi’s daughter and I am taking pride in this!  But, I give credit to my father that he never once pushed me into it. He never asked me why I don’t read the newspaper. I think he was just so assured that the earth was so fertile that the Ankur would sprout one day. He somehow was confident of that and that’s exactly what happened. 

    GJ: You have been described as a non-demanding child – someone who was very dutiful as a daughter and never fussed over pocket money beyond what could be afforded by your family then.

    SA: I was still in Xavier’s College but started working at a petrol station during my summer vacations. I would sell Bru coffee because I would get ninety rupees a day which was a huge amount of money. At that time, everybody made fun of me and said – how can you possibly do that? But when they realized how much money there was, very soon you had hordes of St. Xavier’s girls selling Bru coffee. In fact, I used to come and give Mummy the money. But, all this is something that I am not very conscious of. Mummy keeps saying that I didn’t make demands and that is a part of my life, which I am not aware of consciously. 

    GJ:    Was the Film Institute in Pune your obvious choice once the decision was taken?

    SA:    It is so strange because when you talk about sliding doors, I wanted to go to National School of Drama. But, I had heard that the then Director of the institute - Ebrahim Alkazi was very strict and I thought what if he doesn’t accept me in his institute. Also, going away to Delhi seemed a very daunting thing for me to do then because I had never stayed away from home. So, Pune and the Film Institute seemed much more accessible and I opted to join the Film Institute. I value Prof. Roshan Taneja - my senior, my Guru, my teacher - because there were so many statements that he made then which I didn’t quite understand but I internalized them and today. I watch myself actually taking the guidance that he gave me as a student so many years ago. So it was possible that had I gone to the National School of Drama and become a theatre actor, I wouldn’t have become as well-known as I am today since it is only because of cinema and its reach that I would owe my popularity to. Also, had I gone to the National School of Drama, I wouldn’t have got the gold medal at the film institute, I wouldn’t have been cast by Shyam Benegal, I wouldn’t have won my first National Award, I wouldn’t have gone to Berlin and been mentioned along with Richard Dreyfuss as outstanding talent and so on. My whole life would have taken a different trajectory altogether. 

    GJ: You were offered your first film even before you passed out of the Film Institute? 

    SA: I actually thought that I would get into theatre when I was a student at the Film Institute. I hadn’t even won the gold medal when I signed my first film. I remember, Ahmed Basu was a family friend and a member of the Communist Party. He had made a children’s film called Hamara Ghar. He rejected me for a role when I was 12 or 13 saying, ‘You are too old for the part’. He wanted to make up for it and so, when I was still a student at the Film Institute, he signed me for a film called Fasla with Raman Kumar. I signed another film called Kantilal Rathode’s Parinay while I was still a student. This was the first film that I actually started shooting for… So, imagine, I passed out on the 30th of April 1973 and on the 1st of May, I was already shooting my first film. I would say I had 3 firsts. The first film I signed is Faasla, the first film I started shooting for was Kantilal Rathode’s Parinay. Ankur was offered much later and I only started shooting for it on 18thSeptember 1973. But because it released on 24th September 1974, it was my first released film. The fact that it was my first released film also made a difference. 

    GJ: You are known as the Meryl Streep of India. But what would it take for somebody to be the Shabana Azmi of the country? How would you define your own legacy?

    SA: That’s really a tough question because I really do think that I am a product of being at the right place at the right time. It’s perfectly possible that I would have had the amount of talent that I have and it could have remained a closely guarded secret. But it was through the roles I was offered and the films that got made why I was successful at exploring myself as an actor. What if I hadn’t got these opportunities? Then who would have known me? So you have to give credit to the fact that I was at the right place at the right time. The fact that it all sort of exploded together worked in my favour. Also the fact that I worked in international cinema - it gave me the right exposure. 

    It was in 1989 that I did a film called Madame Suzatska with Shirley Maclaine and John Schlesinger. When I was asked to work in that film, the producer rang me up and said that Ruth Jhabwala has written the screenplay. In the original novel, the woman is a Jewish mother but Ruth Jhabwala wanted to turn her into an Indian mother and John Schlesinger felt that Asians had become such a part of the British fabric that it would be nice to play her as an Indian mother. Now, see the chance over there. Someone else could have been writing the screenplay and not Ruth Jhabwala and this wouldn’t have happened. Anyway, after a few questions here and there, within 24 hours I got a message saying that Ruth would like you to fly to London. At that time, I was shooting for Gulzar’s Libaas but I flew to London within 24 hours. John and I just fell in love with each other at first sight. I went, knowing fully well that I was going to be treated like a newcomer, making a new beginning because they didn’t know anything about my reputation. I was also aware that I was going to be judged purely for my work and nothing else. Now, this was a time when I was reigning queen and really comfortable with being called Meryl Streep of India. But they didn’t give a damn and they weren’t going to stand up in respect until and unless they saw my work. This is an ability I have and Javed describes it best by saying that I don’t fear failure. 

    GJ: How do you assess your experience doing international cinema?

    SA: When I was shooting for Madame Suzatska, it really felt like I was giving myself an opportunity to start all over again and earn respect only on my own grounds and not out of the reputation that preceded me. After this, I got many more films. I did City of Joy, I worked with Hugh Grant, with Elephant Man John Hurt and then I worked in a film called La Nuit Bengali and so on. There are 10 films that I have done internationally and of course, it became much more comfortable as I went along. We did a film called Side streets with Shashi Kapoor when Zoya was new to the industry then and was the Assistant Director on the film. Later, when I worked in the National Theatre in London, it was the first time that the National Theatre was doing an Asian play - The Waiting Room. It was written by Kanika Gupta but was being held at the National Theatre. I did the grind like everybody else - I lived by myself in a one bedroom flat, I would wake up, cook my own food, go to work at 9 o’clock in the morning, wind up at 6, walk back and cook my dinner. There was absolutely no reason for me to do it – I could well afford a more comfortable living. I could have had a maid and let her do the cleaning et al. But I said if I do that, I am not allowing myself to be a newcomer. I really want to be a newcomer. I want to actually sahulat... You know Javed says that about Abbas – sahulat - main usko chod sakti hoon – I can give up the comforts. I was really living like a student and getting a very paltry per diem and enjoying that. So, putting yourself in unfamiliar circumstances and then being able to put your head above the water, I think that’s very important for an artist because then you don’t allow yourself to be complacent. In fact, I was already a Member of Parliament then but I did it at the time when Parliament was not in session.

    GJ: Do you ever watch your own movies?

    SA: I do watch! This is one of the things I love to do. But my family would probably come and say – have you cracked your head completely that you are watching your own work? What has happened to you? In fact, even today when somebody is watching my work and if there’s a shot I don’t like, I’ll try and give you popcorn at that time so that you don’t look at that shot which I hate. 

    GJ: Of all the characters you’ve played, which has been the most personal for you? 

    SA: Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth because that got me involved with women’s rights and issues. When I did Arth, I had women walking into my home as fans – not as fans to the star in me, but as in sisterhood – expecting me to resolve their marital conflicts. I was merely an actor and I had merely done a part. I was really frightened then because they expected me to resolve all their problems. We are talking about 1983... It was then I realised that as artists we have such a huge responsibility too. Even today I meet so many women who are my age, who have come and told me that I have touched their lives because of my character in Arth. I am very grateful to Mahesh for giving me that part because of which I could connect with women and their issues.

    GJ: Of all the directors that you’ve worked with, who has shaped you as an actor?

    SA: Mahesh Bhatt, because I was very confused about what glamorous means on screen and I used to put cakes of makeup, wear horrendous wigs and awful clothes that were done by stylists and look really awkward. It was Mahesh who said – ‘I see you in real life and I find you a really natty dresser and I find that you have your own persona. You never allow that persona to come on screen.’ I contested it by saying that I simply wear on screen what my dress designer thinks I should be wearing. He couldn’t get the logic of my argument probably and he put me in a film called Lahoo ke Do Rang in which we worked with what were actually my personal saris. He said that he wanted me to wear a sari but also do something different about it. So I turned the sari around me and wore it like a gown; something that people are doing very often today. I clubbed that with a silver belt and silver jewellery and stuff like that. He then asked me to get rid of the sleeves and so we did a halter blouse. That experience was very liberating for me because that was close to what I was in real life. 

    I used to be very conscious about my teeth and hide my smile because everyone used to always laugh at me and say – Buck tooth Shabana. But Mahesh asked me why I keep covering my face and when I told him this reason, he said that it is about my eyes and not my teeth. He said that if the smile comes, it has to come from the eyes and after that, this is all that mattered to me. For me, it was like a big burden that had been lifted from my head and I suddenly started smiling without being conscious about it. Mahesh was honest to then say that I don’t need to show all my 72 teeth and that I can just relax and stop covering my mouth. When people came up to me and said – you’ve got a glorious smile, I would just look at Mahesh and wink and say – this is all your doing, buddy. I used to always keep covering my mouth and he liberated me. Mahesh helped me be confident of my own self instead of trying to adapt to notions of what glamorous is. 

    GJ:    Which of your films have influenced your journey considerably?

    SA:    Two very significant films – one was Goutam Ghosh’s Paar and the other was Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth. They were really the turning point and that was a huge sliding door. While I was preparing for Paar, I was looking out for some character that resembled the character I was playing in the film. We were living in an English guest house in Naihati, which is a shanty town away from Kolkata. There was a girl there who was the sweeper woman. I would see her sweep the floors. I would see the way she walked, the way she ate and everything else. I would observe very carefully and we even kind of became friends. And then I was imitating what she does. That was when she said if I would go to her house. I agreed immediately and went to her house. I saw this hut and I saw utter poverty there, which I had never before seen in my life. It was a maybe 180 sq ft. tenement with no electricity, no air; housing eight people. There was absolutely nothing! I was so struck that someone who was living against such adversity had the generosity to become my friend and that she had taken me home without being self-conscious about it. I was so moved that despite these conditions, she was offering me tea and biscuits. I felt so taken-in by her and I felt that if I went back to Bombay and used her to win a National Award but did nothing to improve the lives of people around her, it would be a travesty of the trust she had placed in me while we had become friends. I couldn’t say that I am going to use you to better my performance and after that, I won’t be concerned about your life.

    I also remember that we were shooting on the streets of Kolkata – Calcutta at that time and there was a scene where I am sleeping on the pavement and a man tries to proposition me. Just a little away from me, there was a mazdoor woman lying who had worked the whole day. Despite the generator we were using for the shoot, the noise, the screaming and the light, she had passed out. She was completely oblivious to the fact that there was so much noise around her. I remember being struck on seeing a woman who worked so hard all day and is sleeping on the streets without being aware of all the noise – she was dead tired. I remember writing a letter to Shekhar Kapur at the time citing this as the socio economic reality of India and what are we talking about! It was a pen/paper note that I wrote to him. I don’t know whether he still has it. 

    I came back and happened to see a movie by Anand Patwardhan called Bombaiya City, Hamara Shahar which clearly brought home to me that demolitions served no purpose; that demolitions created worse slums out of already existing ones because people don’t go back to the villages. They come to the city in search of work and if you demolish their homes, then they will go 5 kms away. So, maybe, the first slum has water and electricity but next slum won’t. It proved the point that unless you can provide employment in the villages so that people don’t have to migrate to the city looking for work, they will inevitably come. This realisation opened the doors of my mind because like everybody else, I used to feel that these people keep coming and creating slums in the city. I joined this organisation called Nivara Hak; it was out of an emotional response to this reality. 

    GJ:     Did Nivara Hak give birth to the social activist in you?

    SA:    I joined Nivara Hak in May 1986. That was the time when I was supposed to go to the Cannes Film Festival because my film - Mrinal Sen’s Genesis - was being filmed there.  One day before I was to go, I was called for a meeting at the Nivara Hak in which they said they were going on an indefinite hunger strike. It was Anand Patwardhan and three people from the slums who were going on a hunger strike because a very large slum had been demolished in Cuffe Parade and the Government was not willing to give them alternative accommodation, although that was the policy then. They had knocked on every door and they had done every possible thing for their rights. But they were unsuccessful and so, they decided to go on a hunger strike. When I heard that, my emotional response was - I am going to join you in this hunger strike. I expected it to be indefinite but it lasted only five days. I remember telling Javed and he said that I will be criticised for this. He told me that people won’t say that I was such a great heroine to be doing such a thing. This was so because it was the time when one couldn’t imagine a mainstream actress could do something like this because it was anti-government. Anyway, at the strike venue, there was no security at all. It was just five bamboos in the sweltering heat of May. My blood pressure started falling and I became ill but I carried on. It was then that Shashi Kapoor went to the Chief Minister and said that while the film industry was always out for them, how is it that he does nothing when one of their own is literally dying! Shashi Kapoor then managed to get the Home Minister to come and assure an alternative land to these people. It was a big success. Later, I increasingly became involved with Nivara Hak because the fact that I was who I was, doors opened very easily. So we could meet chief ministers, we could meet defence ministers and do all sorts of things. 
    Once, I was about to perform my play Tumhari Amrita and I got arrested along with 16 slum dwellers for allegedly trying to create a riot, which was completely false. What happened was that the officials were bulldozing the slums of Gitanagar and lathi charging the people. We tried to stop the police from doing that and the police arrested us. We landed up at the police station and in 2 hours, at 6 o’clock, I had my play at NCPA. While they said that they would release me on bail, I refused to accept it because I had done nothing wrong. I insisted that the police had to let all of us go else even I would stay back. My mother, father, husband, the director of the play Feroz and my co-actor Farooq – all of them came and said – but there is a play, how can you not do the play? My mother insisted that the show must go on and that I shouldn’t let my audience down and asked the Inspector to let me go for two hours, after which my mother would personally get me back to the police station.  However, after much back and forth, I went in at 8 for the show which was scheduled to start at 6! Finally at 8.05, I was on stage and we got a standing ovation and nobody from the audience had left. All these ups and downs of my life was beautifully collating with the work that my father was doing. 

    GJ: How did you think of going back to your father’s village in Uttar Pradesh and working for the betterment of the village?

    SA: After having a paralytic stroke, instead of giving in to despair, my father went back to his village Mejwan in Uttar Pradesh, Azamgarh where he was born. He realised the village was frozen in time. There was no road, no electricity, no school – there was nothing. That’s when he decided to dedicate himself to the upliftment of the village and its people. At the same time, I was working in the urban areas saying that if people find employment in the villages, they will not have to migrate to the city and into the slums at all. I became a Member of Parliament because of the work I was doing in the slums. We made houses for 50,000 people for free and in accordance with the SRA regulations in Maharashtra. But the fact is that I feel utterly bad today because when your parents are alive, you don’t pay any attention to them and this is what happened with me too. When my father passed away in 2002, I then took on the reins of Mejwan because to me, it was a given. I got completely involved with Mejwan because it couldn’t be any other way. It was what my father was doing and I had to take it on. It takes a lot from me - it takes a lot of physical energy and personally, it’s like an emotional seesaw. Add to it, people there also have expectations. But today, I feel proud... Mejwan has gone international. I kept thinking of my father all the time. Once when I was watching Manish Malhotra’s show and all these girls in Mejwan being adorned on the ramp, I kept feeling very guilty throughout and I wished I had done this when my father was alive. I constantly keep feeling I didn’t hold his hand when he was doing it on his own. This is a guilt that will remain with me. 

    GJ: How has contributing to the emancipation of women and children, interacting and reaching out to the downtrodden emotionally or internally transformed you?

    SA: It’s a continuity of the work I saw my father do. There was never a chowkidar at home – it was a little cottage where anyone could walk in. So you had the Governor of Maharashtra coming to the house or the mazdoor from Madarpura and nobody could ever stop anyone from coming into the house. I had seen these contradictions early on. But for me, the biggest challenge came because as a film actor, more a star than an actor really, your life starts getting cushioned by so many people before you can be reached. So you have a manager, then you have a secretary, then you have a make-up artist and then you have a hair dresser and then you have a personal assistant! In this process, you start losing touch with life because you have this coterie around you that protects and isolates you and puts you in an ivory tower, which is detrimental for you as an artist. It is detrimental because for an artist, life should be as it is and I believe the very resource base of an artist should be life. What would happen is that I would be in my air conditioned fancy house and suddenly at 7.30 in the evening when I am just opening the doors for a fancy party that I am throwing, suddenly I get to know that 30 women are waiting downstairs for me. I cannot ask them to come back tomorrow because their house is going to be demolished tomorrow morning. While they have a right to expect from me and the right to walk into my house, but mentally it was very disturbing because you had women in front of you talking about losing their homes and you were about to throw a fancy party. It would create a lot of turmoil, disturbance and trauma inside me. But I realized that I owed as much to my family as I do to these people because it is my family which is so supportive of me and gives me the freedom and the support to do whatever I can. I could say that I will abandon everyone, become Mahatma Gandhi and go and live with them. I have a life that I love and I also want to be there for women like these. All I wanted to say was that it is possible to do both. You know some people can find it very strange.

    GJ: Who would you say were your support systems at such times?

    SA: From the very beginning, I was only working at the grass roots. I wasn’t a brand ambassador for something and posing with children on Children’s day and making a hefty pocket full of money for doing so. I was actually at grass roots – standing in front of bulldozers, staging demonstrations and actually taking action. I was able to straddle both worlds because of the support from my family; also strangely from my film producers. I remember I was shooting for Mardonwali Baat with Dharmendra on the set when I was told that a slum had been demolished in Priyadarshini Park. We were promised that they would meet us the next day and then we would decide what was going to happen to the people who were still on the pavements. Instead, we heard that the children and women had been put in a truck and taken away in the dead of night and the men didn’t know where the women and children were. I went completely crazy and started sobbing. Brij, the filmmaker, saw me sobbing and instead of telling me that he doesn’t care and that he has Dharmendra only for two hours; he told me that I should go.  That was the kind of support I got from the film industry. 

    GJ: How do you manage so many different roles - being a parliamentarian, a humanitarian, a social activist, an actor? 

    SA: How do I juggle so many hats? I think I live at breakneck speed. All the time, Javed keeps telling me that I just can’t keep on running. He keeps saying Shabana runs a marathon like a sprint! He says you can’t run it like a sprint, it’s a marathon; you’ll get really exhausted. I do get exhausted and I moan and I bitch and I groan and I say that I can’t take it anymore and the next morning, I am back to exactly where I was. Again Javed says that Shabana is either straight or she is flat. So, it’s all going in and then it’s suddenly that moment when you fall flat for some time and then it comes back exactly to 90 degrees angle. That’s the way I am and that’s exactly the way my father was too. My father also used to work like this and his health was of no consequence to him. In fact, my father made such a strong foundation for me that to take on from there was really the least of the worries. It all ties up with art being used as an instrument for social change. It all goes back to what was injected into me by a process of osmosis, not by being made to sit down and listen to a Communist ideology but because it was practised around me. Because I feel when you have this kind of ability to reach out to people, it is very important that you do it in a way which contributes, which makes a difference. I believe to have this power in your hands and to waste it is a huge pity. 

    GJ: Considering the many ups and downs of your life, how do you look back at the times gone by?

    SA: A major part of my life has been about protests. It all started when I was a child but as I grew older, I have matured a great deal. Now, I don’t stay only with the problem; I stay with the solution. And for the solution, I am willing to walk two steps forward, two steps backward – whatever is required - because I feel the only way to solve a problem is through dialogue and nothing else... It has to be through dialogue and engagement; it has to be by being able to make the other person see your point of view. There has to be stiff resistance and there has to be stiff opposition. But ultimately you just can’t stay with that, you have to move forward. For us in Nivara, having high rise buildings is not the answer to Bombay’s slums. But either we had a chance of just letting these people perish and die or move them into buildings that were not our first choice because at least it gave them a chance. You can call it a compromise, you can make it an understanding, you do whatever – I am with the solution. 
    In the larger perspective, for me, at the moment when I am dealing with women’s situations; women’s safety, women’s expectations, women’s empowerment is what I look out for. We are all victims of a patriarchal mindset that privileges the boy over the girl. The solution to this is a mindset transformation which takes a long time. You can get laws in place, but for laws to be internalised, for mindsets to change – that’s what takes a long time. When I get impatient, I always think of my father, who said to me – ‘when you are working for change, you should build into that expectation the possibility that change might not occur within your lifetime. Yet, you must carry on working with sincerity and dedication, knowing that if you do that – change will occur – even if does so after you are gone.’ So then there is no place for any frustration because you haven’t given yourself a McKenzie 5-year goal in which this has to be achieved; because you are talking about mindset change. I see in Mejwan and girls saying no to marriage before the age of 18. This was unthinkable earlier when the girls would come to school with sindoor in the maang. Today, the principal, students and teachers have taken a vow that if a girl is forced into marriage before 18, they will do a demonstration outside her house. They have opened their own bank accounts; they are not only earning money, but also spending money the way they want to. I can see the huge transformation that has taken place and this to me is the most significant of all. 

    GJ: What keeps you going even as this age, at a time when most of the actors from your generation are enjoying what one could call a ‘retired life’?

    SA: This happens largely to those who play the ‘heroine.’ Even when I was playing a heroine, I was playing a character who was an actual person. So your persona depends on not just what is considered glamorous at 28 but also on the substance of the person, of the character. Then, there are parts that get written for you, keeping in mind what you have to offer. When you have only good looks and svelte figure to offer, then very quickly you are going to be replaced because the next girl is waiting right there around the wings with more to offer. So, the fact is that even when I was playing the heroine, I was playing characters. I hope I am able to explain myself because it’s a very important thing – that’s why your career gets extended. 

    GJ: Born to Kaifi, married Javed Akhtar - What is it being Shabana? 

    SA: And then, the mother of Zoya and Farhan... it doesn’t end! My father was an amazing person. About Javed - you know, I fell in love with a married man and people were absolutely appalled. They felt that here is this feminist and she is talking about women’s rights and she is snatching away somebody’s husband! It was a battle to explain myself but I didn’t bother because I figured it was okay to get the brickbats; because it is a contradiction; because people do think that how can I do this? I was tempted to go out and explain that Javed’s earlier marriage was already over when I entered but I refrained from doing so because it would have hurt far too many people. So, to continuously get those brickbats and consciously allow myself to take it because it was so important for me that Javed is my husband. Javed told me - I will marry you and if I don’t, remember that it was because I never intended to. Those were the strongest words coming from Javed at a time when so many people told me that it will never happen because he loves his children to death and it was a very difficult decision for him to take. We really tried to stay away from each other... we broke up thrice and we did all kinds of things and then finally, he took a decision. During this time, his words would come back to me – I didn’t marry you because I never intended to. There was so much confidence that he had given me throughout this phase. 

    GJ: Given that you and Javed Saab are two very strong personalities, how has Javed Saab influenced you? 

    SA: I think both of us have shaped and influenced each other because we are, in a sense, different personalities. But we are fired by the same vision, by the same world view. We are products of the same environment; his father was a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association, he was a member of the Communist Party, he is a film lyricist and so on. I always say that we should have had an arranged marriage because our backgrounds are so similar. But I will tell you an incident... We were building a house in Khandala and we had so many arguments then because in my head I was building a different house while he was building a different one. I was building a house which was a cosy weekend resort and he thought of building a mansion. I made his life absolutely miserable then. It was his best friend who told me that ‘Shabana, this is his dream house, he has lived on the street, you haven’t – and you better not interfere.’  
    Something else about Javed that not everyone knows is that he is a true feminist. In discovering Javed, I was re-discovering my father because I was re-discovering the language, I was re-discovering the food, I was rediscovering the tehzeeb - there’s a Lucknowi and Awadhi tehzeeb. My father and Javed both have a sense of propriety, which is very old world. I keep telling him that you are ancient but there’s a strong sense of propriety and all those things are so similar to my father. He is outspoken and fearless but also very pragmatic. It is contradictory that he can be very pragmatic and also very dreamy. 

    GJ: How is it working together and sharing your life with Javed Saab?

    SA: I say ‘No’ to everything he says. He says ‘yes’ and I say ‘No’, then he says after 10 minutes you’ll say OK – and I say OK. To me, I don’t want to deal with anything that is so huge and I say - no, no, no! I want it on a much smaller level but he just expands everything and frightens the daylights out of me. I think micro and he thinks macro! But our marriage works because we are each other’s best friend. In fact, Javed is fond of saying that Shabana and I are such good friends that even marriage couldn’t ruin our friendship. In the friendship we share, we seek each other’s company. Before I met Javed, I used to seek different things in different people. So, I had some friends who used to give me humour, some used to give me intellectual stimulation and some who used to give me emotional support. Then I met Javed and it suddenly all became available in one person. I don’t know whether he feels the same about me. 
    On the surface when you see Javed, he can come across as a very careless person; but, every time I have been even in the slightest trouble, he picks up his hood like a cobra mate and holds me close and says – let me see who is going to say anything to my wife. That to me is so much securitythat it doesn’t matter about the other things that you expect. In fact, in our lives, we are not in the husband/wife roles at all. I do things I watched my mother do – like pack his bags. But if I don’t, there is no expectation from him. If his buttons are missing, he is not going to turn to me and say that they are missing. It’s his man Friday who’ll look after it. He doesn’t expect that I’ll look after his food or any such thing, but I do all of that because that is what I have seen my mother do. There have been instances when I get up in the morning and Javed has gone somewhere and I didn’t even know, or he gets up and I have gone. But then that’s fine. 

    GJ: How well have you adjusted with Farhan and Zoya?

    SA: Our gatherings are a lot of humour, lot of leg pulling; sometimes really foolish conversation and most of the times, a lot of intense and very serious political conversations. I am very proud of the fact that Zoya and Farhan are both very socially conscious citizens of the country and they have very strong views. They have great arguments also and are fiercely opinionated. They are responsible citizens and for both of us, that was extremely important. We are also very proud of their body of work. They are not running after false success. They have not compromised quality. They have not done anything that has embarrassed us in any way. In fact, it’s really very strange because Farhan wears his success so lightly. I mean, he never comes back to us, shows off and says -- you know, I went for this performance and my God, it was amazing and other people say that Farhan had this rock show in Singapore and the girls went completely crazy and stuff like that. 

    For my relationship with Farhan and Zoya, I give a lot of credit to their mother Honey because I think she has been extremely generous in sharing them with me and in not filling their hearts with all kinds of stories about me, which would have been completely natural had she done that. For this, I value her greatly! Firstly, such an approach retained the sanity of her children and it made the whole experience not as hard. It was hard, it would be wrong to say it was not hard, but not as hard as it could have been, not as harsh as it could have been. I really respect her for the fact that she has given the children the freedom to discover me on their own and make up their mind independently of what was her feelings about what had happened. I really value that. 

    GJ: In hindsight, what have been the high points of your existence?

    SA: Those six years as a Parliamentarian because it was the place that provided me with an opportunity to be the voice of the grass roots at a place where issues were discussed and policies were framed. I always felt that there was disconnect between people who frame policies and people who actually have their voices right there on the ground. So being a Parliamentarian gave me an opportunity to be there! I was an extremely sincere Parliamentarian, I attended the sessions regularly and participated in debates and was respected despite being opposed to the BJP. I don’t belong to any political party, I never have. But it never happened that I wanted to speak on a subject and I wasn’t given an opportunity. When I gave in my name and said I wanted to speak, I always got the opportunity because I wasn’t doing rabble rousing; I was talking about serious issues. I guess, in Parliament, because I didn’t belong to any political party, I could easily listen to two completely different points of view patiently and then decide who made more sense and reach a conclusion.  I also found it very strange when I saw people in the House almost at each other’s throats. I felt that they could almost kill each other. But then, once you are out, you see the same people sitting in the Central Hall and say things like - why don’t you buy me a coffee and thanda pila do chalo. I realised that it was such an adult way to behave; it was issues that you were fighting against and it wasn’t about egos. That for me was a learning experience because my resource base was academics and not the political class. There were NGOs, there were people who were actually working both at the academic level and the grassroot. I stood firmly for Housing or slums and Domestic Violence Bill and on Health while in Rajya Sabha. 

    GJ: What were the lows of your life?

    SA: After dealing with brickbats over falling for a married man; it was the realization that I can’t have a child because I had taken it for granted that I am God’s chosen child and so everything should come my way. I was shattered about how could it be possible that Javed and I cannot have a child of our own? But then I came to terms with it and felt that may be, I wouldn’t be able to be as actively involved in social work had I had my own child because I would have been a late mother. I got married only at the age of 34 and so, I would have had to have a child very quickly but that was the time when I was actively involved in the heart of everything. Today, I don’t hold any hurt in my heart at all. I was very blessed because I had Zoya and Farhan who had gone past the age when they had Mumps and diphtheria and measles and teething problems and other miserable problems that children have. They were these bright, intelligent people just waiting for ideas to be put into them and to have stimulation. I had a glorious, glorious period with them. So, not having a child of my own hasn’t scarred or hurt me particularly because I had Zoya and Farhan and because I believe that you cannot get it all. 

    GJ: When you wake up every morning, do you have expectations from your day?

    SA: At this point, the expectation I have from my day is that I hope I can get up in the morning and have nothing to do, so I can clean my cupboards.  But seriously speaking, I want to be able to do absolutely nothing – read a book, listen to music, clean my cupboards - just do absolutely nothing.

    GJ: If you had three days off, what would you like to do? 

    SA: I would love to take a holiday in my own house. Holiday for me is not going to Paris or London. It is being in Sagar Samrat. Being there for three days without an agenda where my days would be just around my family, my friends.  For me a completely ideal day is when I have family and friends of all generations together – from my mother to her great grandson – everybody over here. There will be a lot of food since the Azmis and the Akhtars are obsessed with food; they talk about nothing but food all the time. 

    GJ: What would Farhan and Zoya say about food?

    SA: Farhan and Zoya can come to our house at any time of the day and simply ask – where are the kebabs? There has got to be a time when you can eat kebabs; you can’t eat kebabs the moment you enter the house! But ‘where are the kebabs’ is the first question. Every time they come to the house, they say – we are starving, where is the food? That’s typical them because the food in the house is really good. 

    GJ: I read somewhere that you watch cricket. 

    SA: Nobody talks to me when the match is on, including my staff. So I am the day and night staff who silently gives them the food, serves them tea because even the staff is not willing to help me during the game. This is the only time when I am left completely on my own – the time when there is a cricket match going on. 

    Shabana Azmi

  • Saina Nehwal

    When she was all of eight, her mother knew she would be a champion. By the time she was twelve, Saina was already on the courts and winning every game she played. If her mother – a professional badminton player herself – pushed her to a point of despair, it was only because she knew what her daughter was capable of. World number one today, Saina doesn’t bat an eyelid when she tells you that it is not for enjoyment, but for the sake of winning that she plays every game – the reason why she is called the ‘tigress’ from India.

    GJ: You are just 22 and you have redefined history, how do you feel? 

    SN: You know age doesn’t matter; it’s all about winning and winning against anyone.

    GJ: From your biographies, I learnt that you were really focused right from the beginning…

    SN: Yes I was very focused, you cannot focus just like that, there’ll be someone behind you who’ll make you focus. My mom was like that. She was too much into the sport, she wouldn’t let me focus on anything else but the game. I was studying or playing or studying or playing. So it was only two things which I was doing. When I used to play bad or do badly in these games she used to scold me. 
    Once I played my under 10 tournament and that was the first year I was playing tournaments, I just came out of the court and expected she would say something, instead she just gave me a slap in front of my colleagues whom I used to play with and they were laughing at me and I said one day you will see. She did that for my betterment and today I am here for her. Positive people will always think that well she wants me to do well negative will that they are discouraging me. So if you want to do something for your parents your country you have to think positively and that’s what I did. I never felt bad about anything, I could understand her feeling you know. Of course I was very young to understand anything but that winning feeling she put inside me so much and later on when I was 15 or 16 then they didn’t even ask second time when I said I don’t want to study anymore. Although they knew that the game was not popular then, there were so many thoughts that must have gone on in their minds like injury, money etc but they didn’t ask me second time. Today I am very happy that everything turned out to be good for me. I was also very lucky to get good sponsors at that time, at the age of 14, I got Bharat Petroleum and I work with them now and at 18 years I got Deccan Chronicle as my sponsors. That was one of the major sponsors, I didn’t have to worry about any money, and not many sponsors were coming in at that time. Now Deccan Chronicle contract is over and Riddhi sports sponsors came along.
    In badminton to get such a big deal is not easy, that too in India. Other sports like cricket and tennis were already popular, but badminton was not. Then people knew me and sponsors were coming in. 

    GJ: What’s sportsmanship to you and how do you execute it?

    SN: Sportsmanship for me – you have to be cool on court, of course everyone wants to win but you should not give in to sledging. I am a very relaxed and cool person on court. There was a match during Olympics and my opponent fell down and everyone was like where you happy that she fell down and you got the medal? I mean what is that supposed to mean? When she fell I was not thinking about the medal, I was thinking what happened to her. So it’s very important in every sport mto play properly, to not show any anger that you are afraid of losing to opponents. This is something that I do. 

    GJ: What’s winning and what’s losing to you?

    SN: Winning is everything and losing is painful. To think that I have lost that match which I could have won is painful. It’s not that I lose easily, I beat everybody, I have beaten world’s number 1. So there’s no one left now. If I lose to them it’s very closely and then I feel really very bad and think maybe I was not fit enough for this tournament.  If I had prepared a little bit then I would have won the match. I would get those kinds of feelings.

    GJ: You said that at the age of 8 your mom knew, what made her so sure?

    SN: She was a player before and she had it in her mind and of course she knew how to play and she used to say that I’ll make you a champion; I’ll make you an Olympic champion. She used to watch badminton, she used to watch tennis, she was too much into sports, she wanted to do something, and she directly put the title of Olympics in front of me. But she said nothing is impossible. With the kind of hard work that I did, I started performing at the age of 12 of 13 because I got the exposure. 

    GJ: Coach Gopichand was in the news recently because of the harassment case that was filed recently, lot of players supported the case but you spoke for the coach.

    SN: A lot of people supported him and you must understand that a coach who is so hard working, who helps the girl players so much, he doesn’t have time for himself, he is behind us all the time. Whatever came out in the paper is obviously a little disheartening for him but sometimes these things happen.

    GJ: When do you see number 1 happening?

    SN: I know it’s not easy, I’m working on it, I have to win many tournaments to be at the top. I feel I have the capability of doing it and I cannot say when I can do it but it will happen. 

    GJ: Of all the achievements, that you won which one is the closest to you?

    SN: Nothing bigger than the Olympic medal, everyone dreams of an Olympic medal. My mother once said that Saina for me you’ll be in the Olympics, I know you will be. Only at the age of 18 I played my first Olympics, at 2008. I lost and then I waited 4 years and now I have the medal. At 18 I was the youngest player to play from India. 

    GJ: When did you feel you had made it?

    SN: I thought about it when I was 15 when I beat Aparna, I beat quite a few international players. I beat Aparna who was world no 27, I was nothing then, I was just a national level player. Then I beat her so easily and then I knew it that I can win against strong players.

    GJ: Who is that one opponent you love playing against?

    SN: I don’t enjoy, I just want to win. People tell me on court you are a tigress off the court you are silent. 

    GJ: Is there any ritual which you do before going into the game?

    SN: I pray and sometimes I try to meditate or I visualize the game and then I go ahead playing it. I am quite strong mentally because I don’t give up any match easily, I try to give my best and if I lose then it was not a very easy match. 

    GJ: How long do you train?

    SN: I normally train for 9 hours. Before it was 8 to 9 hours now it has gone up to 11 hours. 

    GJ: Would you say you are very hard on yourself?

    SN: You have to be hard you want to be good. Especially in India nobody did so well in badminton. It’s a very difficult sport, if you see on TV the game has become so fast that you don’t have time to even think in between. The rallies are happening very fast, you are putting too much strain on your legs and I have not seen a girl from India so physically strong. There was no one reaching world number 2 or 3 before, so I changed it and showed that we can beat Chinese and all the players. 

    GJ: Are there any other people who have influenced you other than your coach and parents?

    SN: When I started playing I had 3 coaches SM Arif, Gohota Reddy and Nani Prasad Sir who is no more, these 3-4 coaches really helped me achieve what I have achieved today. I want to thank my academy members, they made me train so much.

    GJ: Now that you are participating in the badminton leagues, what prompted you to get into it?

    SN: I think it’s something different as to what is happening in badminton, something like IPL will happen in badminton and I was so thrilled that something like cricket will happen in badminton. I think it will be a huge success because of the big money coming in and the players who don’t get to play at the national and the international level, they will also get a chance to play. With that money they can also go abroad and play in tournament and this will only popularize the game more. And people will also sit and watch the game. 

    GJ: Have you ever thought of a second career other than badminton and how would you like to empower the country’s status in badminton?

    SN: I got an offer from Haryana for the academy there, from Bangalore also I got an offer from people who gave me flats over there Commune India and they wanted to start an academy and told me to be a part of it. I’ll do something for the game for sure.

    GJ: Here, sports fraternity is one not sponsored by the government like it is done in China. What are the structural changes you’d recommend the government to begin with?

    SN: The area to look into here is the infrastructure of the game. Getting more coaches from abroad is crucial. Chinese coaches will be the best but it is difficult to get them but some coaches who can give full time to the game who can be there from 4:30 in the morning till night and training all the kids and in each and every part of the country. Why not have 300 to 400 players or 1000 players of the same level, and then it will be same like China. I am not asking to change it suddenly but why not begin it now and then in the future we can see the change. 

    GJ: Are you considering marriage in the near future? 

    SN: Don’t you love watching me play, that’s more than getting married and sitting at home. For me, game is first and for that I would do anything. I’ll play till I can give my best and then think about marriage. When I feel that I am not doing well and that I should stop playing then I will consider marriage. Till the time I can play and I know I can go ahead in the game I will continue playing.

    GJ: The qualities in your dream guy?

    SN: Friendly and of course, he should look good because nobody wants a bad looking guy. He should understand what I do in which field I am. He must know that I am not going to stay at home for long time. It’s not easy to start relationship at this point of time 

    GJ: What are the things that the world doesn’t know about Saina?

    SN: I love watching movies, going out for shopping, I love aloo paratha, I love buying gadgets. 

    GJ: Looking forward what can we expect from Saina in a decade? Besides the academy is there any other way you look at yourself 10 years from today?

    SN: I don’t think so far, I really don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, I think about the next game. It’s a tough thing to think about, why should I think so far ahead. 

    GJ: What makes you so successful Saina, there are so many athletes but there is only one Saina?

    SN: I am much focused and it’s the competition which fires me a lot. I think about what the Chinese players are doing at this point of time, I should do a little better than her and that’s the only thing which goes into my head. You might find it silly but I am thinking about my game all the time. Even right now as I am talking to you I am thinking about will I be able to maintain my successful player status and you always want to go on working harder as people would want to know that when you are going to be world number 1. 

    GJ: How is Saina Nehwal different from Sania Mirza? 

    SN: Well people know about that, I don’t have to say that. It’s only the game, which makes all the difference. I have 6 to 7 super series, equal to Wimbledon or any grand slam there. 

    GJ: Are you happy with the way the generations are going about their ways today, as you are around the youth always? What is your thought on the youth of India today?

    SN: They have to be more and more disciplined in life. We need more people to come in sport, whichever sports they like, train yourself and then give your whole life to sport. Girls should come up more. I think India is the most talented country, we have lot of talents but we don’t have the knowledge of the game. 


    Saina Nehwal


    Born with a natural curiosity, as a little girl she looked, unwittingly, for inspiration everywhere. Poetry, sitar, people – from friends and family to peons and ayas - plays, ‘jatra’ parties – she engaged with each. And as she best puts it, Mira Nair looked for her path without knowing she was looking for it. Her talent supplemented by her natural tendency for empathy have helped her create stories that reach straight for the heart – cutting across race, nationality, language and religion. With three homes across three continents, she confesses that it is only because her ‘roots are strong’, that she can ‘fly’.

    GJ: When you’re working on a movie, where do you source your creative inspiration from? 

    MN: Creative inspiration is a privilege: it is different for each film. For Reluctant Fundamentalist, the inspiration came from being invited to Pakistan (Lahore) for the first time. In the media, Pakistan is always a horrific place. There are terrible misconceptions about Islam. Living in New York, things changed for people like me. The inspiration forMonsoon Wedding came from my own dining table: the beautiful chaos of a family life.While being so close, there is darkness and unspoken secrets in every family, and how do these co-exist.  

    GJ: It’s interesting that you’ve grown up in a small town and then, established yourself in the global field. How has your childhood helped shape you to be the person you’ve become today? 

    MN: Growing up in Bhubaneshwar, one had to rely on one’s own imagination. I was a fairly industrious sort and was deeply engaged with people and their lives. My mother has tales of when I was eleven,I would return with the milkman because I was fascinated with his story. Sometimes, I would even visit his family. That was my curiosity and you know how in India, especially in small places, we live cheek by jowl with those who serve us. The ayahs and the peons and their families were as much a part of my life as my own family, and I could see the distinction between the high and the low.That was deeply engaging to me, and that has actually formed what I do in my life.

    My preoccupation with poetry was immense. I used to read poets from Keats to P. Lal, an interesting Bengali poet who used to write in English.  I even wrote my own;I continued my explorations through many art mediums. I used to learn to play the sitar. I had a Bengali teacher who used to come on his bicycle in a dhoti to our bungalow. I’d go and see classical dancers like Sanjukta Panigrahi, a great Odissi dancer. She would be doing her dance practice in the temple nearby and I would study her and talk to her. I looked for my path without knowing that I was looking for it. 

    One day, my sitar teacher told me that I needed to choose one path; that I couldn’t excel at more than one field. It was an ‘Aha!’moment for me. It was very meaningful wisdom that he gave me. It unwittingly gave me focus. 

    GJ: Why did you choose films and film-making as your creative pursuit? 

    MN: I started as an actor in the Delhi University. When I came to America on a scholarship, I assumed I would be studying drama. But I couldn’t relate to the drama at the university. So, I started with a still photography course. I learnt how to capture the world within a frame. That course made me want more. I then found a course for cinema. I majored in documentary film-making and it got me hooked. I made my first film on my own in Delhi: Jama Masjid Street Journal. I then moved to New York and struggled for seven years. 

    GJ: How much has the Indian culture influenced you in your creative pursuits and in the person you’ve become today?

    MN: I like to say that it’s because my roots are strong that I can fly. I’m relieved to be a woman. For me, the foundation of my culture is my family and where I come from. This is true of my husband’s family as well. He’s African-Asian, but our culture is common. Even though as a younger film-maker, I used to say that I refuse to be considered an ambassador for Indian culture, but over time, that is what I am regarded as. I’m happy about it. It seems that I have been the bridge between the subcontinent and the worldin the last twenty-thirty years. I have been deeply immersed with Monsoon Wedding taking off as a Broadway musical. Everything I am doing now is about retaining the authenticity of where we come from and making it something that becomes universal in its specificity. 

    GJ: Which movie has been the most enjoyable for you to work on?

    MN: The films that I love most are the ones that no one tampered with:Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding and Reluctant Fundamentalist. 

    GJ: Please tell us about the Salaam Balak Trust and what inspired you? 

    MN: My mother has been a huge influence on me while I was growing up. She was a social worker; she set up the first health homewhen I was eight. She would help the children of lepers. Leprosy was a big problem. I would come home and see all these ladies making eatables and little knick-knacks for the jawans of the 1955 war. There was always action around me, action that went beyond our manicured walls. I was very inspired by that. I also didn’t feel comfortable with the quality of art around me. In my way of thinking, people had to look beyond their cocoons. I entered the arts to see if it was possible to change the world. When we started the movie Salaam Bombay,it was very clear that we were working with street children. It had to amount to more than a film; it was using real stories, real lives, real children. From the very beginning, it was conceived as a plan to create the kind of workshop we were having for these kids.If something permanent like that could be set up, it would honour them as street children, it would give them a childhood.

    The idea was to give them vocational or educational training, introduce them to artistic pursuits that would eventually reunite them with their families.. After we finished the film, we immediately created the Salaam Balak Trust with the profits of the movie. Because my mother was a social worker all her life, we asked her to chair it. We started off with two staff members in 1988, and now we have 168 people as staff in Delhi alone;there is another chapter of the Trust in Mumbai. We have 5,000 street children coming to us. The trust was honoured by Michelle Obama at the White House.We won the National Youth Award for the twenty-seven years of work we’ve put in,which is not just providing a home for them,but introducing the arts into their lives. 

    GJ: You live in three homes: Uganda, India and New York. Where do you find yourself most comfortable? 

    MN: I’m very grateful to have not left India until I was nineteen years old.As a result, my foundation was very much the Delhi-Orissa world: Delhi University, the theatre group, friendships from childhood, which are thankfully still very much part of my life. I’m always coming and going from India, whether for family or my films. I would say India and the subcontinent is my inspiration. 

    The creative community that has given me a place in the world was in New York. In that sense, the city’s extraordinary artistry has been a vital reason in taking me further in life. For instance, I’ve takenMonsoon Wedding to Broadway. Any excellence that I have admired, I can have access to and be a part of.  And it’s an unpretentious world: it’s not about fame or success, it’s simply about artistry. In that sense, New York has helped me find my voice as a film-maker, even though the inspiration came from India. 

    I went to Kampala twenty-five years ago to make Mississippi Masala, and I fell in love with my husband there. Uganda initially started as an idyllic garden. Family life, nature, living in that quiet space that allowed me to process the hurly-burly of the rest of my life. And then about ten years ago, I founded a school called Maisha. There were so many African stories around me, but they didn’t have the craft to take their stories to the most powerful medium in the world: films. That’s why we created Maisha, because I wanted African stories to be narrated by Africans. In the last fifteen years, Kampala has become more than just a paradise where I live with my family; it has also become a more public and engaging placewith the film school. Now, I’m actually building the physical school and a public garden next door to where we live, and that’s going to be the next stage of engagement. 

    My next film, Queen of Katwe, is a true story set in Katwe. It’s an extraordinary story about genius being everywhere…we just have to find it and nurture it.  I do feel at home in all these three places. They matter to me in different yet similar ways. I’m fortunate enough to have three physical places as homes that serve their function. 

    GJ: What about the African culture appeals to you the most and has inspired your creative awakening? 

    MN: One of the great lessons I’ve learnt there is that nature plays a big role. I’m a restless soul; I was hardly the one to plant a sapling and watch it grow. But over the last twenty years, I’ve created my own garden; I live off the land in terms of food. I’ve created, what I call, guerrilla planting: mahogany trees down the highway, converting an old mosque into a beautiful garden. My own soul engages here with nature in a way it doesn’t in America or India. Nature has become an eternal teacher. It has influenced the rhythm of my own work, it has taught me to not force things or people who can’t grow the way you want them to.  

    Also, it is an inspiration to be living amongst dignified, gentle, unpretentious, people that Africans are.Education is emphasized over everything;there is a calm but also a stoicism about facing the hardships of life here. 

    GJ: You have your own a production house: Mirabai Films. Please tell us about your vision for the house for the next five years. Are there any projects you’re working on currently that you’re excited about?

    MN: We’re producing Queen of Katwe. It has two major movie stars, the names of who I can’t disclose. I’m involved with bringing to India a movie called The Bengali Detective, written by a friend. I’ve asked Govinda to star in that. The major thing we’ve done is the Broadway musical of Monsoon Wedding.    

    GJ: Tell us about your initial meeting with your husband, Mr Mamdani, in Uganda,and the companionship that the two of you share? 

    MN: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, there was a compulsory book that we had to read: Population Control, by Mahmood Mamdani. It was a remarkable book. It was written in the voices of Punjabi peasants. Years later, when I was working on Mississippi Masala, I remembered that the writer of the book was from Uganda. I asked my assistant to see if that same author had written any other book. Sure enough, he had written a book called Proximism to Refugee, which was his personal experience as an Asian in a refugee camp in England. When I read that book, it put in place a lot of what was going to later become our screenplay. It also felt that I knew this guy, and, so, I asked my assistant to set up a meeting with him. We had both assumed that we were going to be meeting older people, and were surprised by each other when we actually met. He looked like he was straight out of a Bob Dylan song, and I was in my early thirties.  We got along instantly. If there is something as ‘love at first sight’, we were privileged to have witnessed that.  



    With a nonchalance that comes so naturally to her, Naina Lal Kidwai will tell you that it is the first wins that are the most difficult. She would know. A trailblazer from the very start, this is someone who has almost made a habit of setting records – from being the first ever Indian woman at Harvard, to procuring a job at PWC by compelling them to change their no-women-employees policy, to being appointed the head of an investment bank – the first woman to have done so anywhere in the country. If you are expecting a complex discourse from her on what has driven her all along, you will be disappointed. Because she will tell you simply and plainly, that her greatest strength was in the belief that she was as good as anyone else could be.

    GJ: Is there any principle that drives you to be a trailblazer as you were the first in PWZ, HPS and the first women to lead a private sector bank? 

    NLK: I firmly believe that I was good as any other. The confidence that I can deliver when I met people, who I believe are as capable or may be less capable than I am, worked in my favour. I think it’s the competitive nature in me that helped me to be a bit of a fighter. I had a boss who called me a fighter and I think the belief in me instigated me to fight back. 

    Moreover, I was very fortunate that none of my fights were in an upsetting situation. There were situations when I felt that I wasn’t getting my due and then to get that recognition I needed to argue a little bit more, work harder but I was not one of those feminist saying ‘don’t open the door for men, believe in womanhood at the cost of fighting all the men etc. It was more a quiet determined fight to stay the course and not get pushed aside. 

    GJ: Over the last 30 plus years in your corporate life you must have placed integrity over the immediate success. Has it ever put you on a very limited position, where you prioritized integrity at work place over the immediate goals of the team players?

    NLK: I don’t see it as a conflict because when you live with a certain standard it hardly happens. My standard of integrity has always been to be open, fair and honest at all stages. I absolutely abhor politics at the work place. If you do well you get recognised and if you don’t you might as well leave the organisation. So you stay in a place because you are good and the organisation recognises you for that. The best thing you can do is understand their weaknesses, not hide that away, and in one’s own dealings. 

    I have worked in organisations where it never was an issue because the banking environment does not bring you into day to day contact with having to get permissions for telephone lines and all the things people struggle with. And all the companies I have worked for, despite the reputation that India is corrupt, organizations never had to succumb to corruption, but may be in hindsight it took us longer to get permissions. Despite living in the country I never saw the issue of integrity being questioned. At the personal level you get petty corruption and it’s all about the dilemma. It’s like the same kind of dilemma that happens when you see a young child at a traffic light. I serve my conscience by working with a donation agency for street children projects knowing that if I continue to pay them at the traffic signals I am encouraging them to beg and get into the world of drugs. But you could as well encourage the pavement workers to join the institutions. I think there are these dilemmas that you will have to live with in this country. It isn’t right to do it and yet you are pulled into doing it. 

    GJ: What is your USP? 

    NLK: I think speaking more for Indian women. Having to manage both work and office at the same time their conditions should be taken in mind and made to fall in line with the western counterparts. And I would say there are enough of us who done that. But I am proud of the fact that I have a family, two kids, husband and that part of my life is as important to me as work and the balancing act is something which has been difficult but entirely achievable as well. What differentiates me from some of my counterparts is that I have worked globally. Always having to argue within the system for India and standing for India and ensuring whether it was our own organization or global customers we would convince them that India is a good story. So I think my being a citizen of the world rather than India alone, the way I am engaged with my organization differentiates me. The organizations I worked in and still work gives me insights which are global. I enjoy global cultures and my desire to assimilate and learn. I travel a lot. My work requires that I travel a lot. So I think that sort of international global footprint is quite an important part. At the end of it to remain anchored as an Indian is all the more important. 

    GJ: You’ve been a leader right from your childhood days, holding many important posts in school. Can you tell us more about your life while you were growing up?

    NLK: I was born in Calcutta, grew up in Bombay, moved to Delhi in 1973 with my parents, and then completed my chartered accountancy. I went to convent schools and it was particularly the last two years in school when I held leadership positions. Initially I was the vice-captain of the house, then becoming the school captain later heading the library squad. I played lots of games in school and in fact was part of the basketball team for 4 years. Two of my friends and I entered the basketball school team when we were in Class VIII and played till four years. We used to play for Himachal at state level and won many tournaments. Badminton was again another game in which I excelled. I played mainly doubles. We were a winning team as I had a partner who was superb. 

    When I was 11-years-old I studied in a school in Bombay. There again I was the head girl of the junior school leading the march past squad and doing all kind of errands for the headmistress. I think the fact that I got these leadership positions early in my life, which I enjoyed doing, made sure that I aspire for it more and more. And not everybody is given a chance, because once you are in it, you enjoy it to improve yourself, you learn from your mistakes and you aspire for it.

    I was also very competitive when it came to academics and I could not handle not coming first. I ranked first in class I but in the second grade I did not and that was a huge jolt to me. Dad was really good in counseling me and he used to say ‘it’s not about coming first rather it’s about putting your best foot forward. And even if you’ve come first and did not put your best foot forward then that victory was of no use.’ He encouraged me to compete against myself. I think those lessons shaped my thinking quite a lot. 

    I think the environment that we grew up in, with our parents allowing us to grow with the philosophy of ‘you have to do your best’ ensured that we rise to the top. 

    GJ: Your father laid the blueprint for your education and career from a very young age. Can you share with us how has your personality been influenced by your father? 

    NLK: He was very hard working man and was highly respected for his ability to speak to anyone. Whether it was the man on the street or the chairman of a company he would talk with deep respect. I never saw lose his temper. I think what I have taken from him is the respect for people’s opinion and their attitudes. 

    I remember there would be discussions at home where my mother would say this is crazy, we live in India, we got to be able to make things work the way it should be but he would adamant that he would not be part of that system. So he would go abroad with whatever meager amount they would give us, may be 50 dollars or something similarly ridiculous. He could have easily arranged for the money and got along with the system like everybody did. But he just believed that he lived entirely within the law and wouldn’t take favours from people and never let his integrity at any stage get questioned. So I admired him a lot for sticking to that side of his personality. And he was both a great golfer and a finance guy and I think that part of his gene went to my sister and me as well.

    GJ: What about your mother? How has she influenced you?

    NLK: My mother is a very strong person with strong family values.  She was always someone who made sure that the entire family came together for dinner. We usually sat for dinner very late at home and my mother would keep on calling my father if he would be late just to make sure that all of us were there together at the dinner table. Dinner was always a bit of an event here. Mom was in that sense a fabulous home maker. She made sure that we came together as a family and that we are understood. 

    GJ: Going further into education you studied in the best colleges like Lady Sri Ram and Harvard Business School. How has education widened your perspective and helped you?

    NLK: I think both education and traveling has helped me. I traveled abroad when I was 18-years-old. I did my first offshore trip with grid Euro rail trip around Europe and that was an eye opener in terms of exposure that it gave to me.  The next trip I made was when I was 23 to join Harvard Business School.  I had never been to the US before and I think those journeys and the stay in US was an educational exposure in its own way. 

    Nothing I learnt in business school is entirely relevant today because the management education keeps developing, the skills keep updating but what stays with you is the ability to learn. How you are trained to read in a certain way, to analyse, distill data which gets thrown at you and narrow it down to a small bit of very important information and articulating that information keeps changing. 

    So I think education is very important for the way it trains your mind, to receive information rather than the information itself. That is why it is extremely important to be continuously tuned with the learning process. 

    When I was young, I used to love reading and my mother was always keen to distract me and I would rebel against it because I love staying with my books. But in a way she moulded my desire to do things beyond books and the more she made me do it the more I hated it. I was someone who was focused more on reading and learning rather then concentrating on other stuffs. I was not going to be the one to be sitting at home and managing a house. I don’t like it. I’ve got another mission in life and that had settled in my mind very early when I was 8 or 9 years old. The more I helped in the house hold chores I would make a mess out of it. 

    GJ: You are the first Indian woman to graduate out of Harvard Business School and it’s an inspiration for young girls. Does that accolade mean anything to you?

    NLK: I didn’t apply to Harvard knowing that I was the first Indian woman going to Harvard. I just happened to enroll to Harvard because I was ambitious enough to understand that I might get in. It was only after being there for a month that somebody came up to me and said, ‘do you know you are the first Indian girl whose come to the school?’ It was more of a discovery for me and I was there so that epithet remains. 

    I was not surprised by the fact that more women did not join at that time. I knew that despite belonging from a very progressive family I still had a battle to fight. My mother was very uncomfortable about me going away for two long years. In those days if you went off to America to study you didn’t come back in between as travel was not easy. Also  the concept of mobile were not there and communication was possible through landlines where again you had to book calls, you didn’t just get dialed in. Moreover, communication was expensive with lots of glitches. My mom’s situation was justified because she nobody from her family had done more than just schooling and nobody worked either. She it was difficult for her to understand my desire and she understood it, but I believe she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t have complete support from home bit it was my desire that drove me to explore the world. 

    GJ: What drives your zeal given that you were the first woman to join PWC, an office with cubicles of only men? 

    NLK: There were three of us who joined PWC and I was amongst those who led the fight to make sure that they hired women and when they did they said that they couldn’t handle just a woman there. They made the decision directly of hiring three women, so there were three of us. 

    GJ: You’ve seen the transformation in India, how has it been for you to live through that?

    NLK: It’s really exciting. If you think about 1991 and we had Dr Manmohan Singh as our finance minister and I remember working with him through some of those plans including privatizations which was a bad word in India. But working on some of the biggest private organizations of the country and seeing those companies go out professionalize, to see the setting up of the National Stock Exchange which happened through deliberations at a time when we were trying to get the Bombay Stock Exchange professionalize and it wouldn’t, so the only way was to encourage the setting up of a new exchange which has to be bigger than the Bombay Stock Exchange to work through the national depository system because we were working a lot with the capital markets then and not so much in banking. We had volts full of physical stock certificates which would be duplicated and scanned, all telling us that this would be going out of control. Ad India need to be in a system where all these physical certificates had to be removed and put in to what we have today is a national depository. That whole exercise to force the change I think that’s again where my global experience helped. India was very close those days, only few of us moved to this international sort of learning which we were able to bring back and not bring back on mass. The last thing we have to say is that we have to Indianise what UK or other western and eastern countries are doing and have a Indian solution for everything. 

    GJ: What would you say are the professional milestones in your journey? The one that absolutely stand out and make you feel like

    NLK: I think the early milestones count for a lot more. When I was heading investment banking in North India and then I was the first woman head of investment banking anywhere in the country, quite early in my career and I think for me that was a very important milestone because internally in the bank there was everyone 10 to 12 years older, externally there no women heads and this was way back in 89. Seven years into the job and Greenlays bank that time was the largest investment foreign bank in India and that’s where I formed relationships and partnerships with people like Mahendra Kothari and Nimesh and later I took Morgan Stanley to him to form JM Morgan Stanley. And Himendra with whom I formed a partnership in Greenlays when we jointly bid for deals because he brought the Indian end and we brought the foreign end. So those were very important milestones which were those first wins were very difficult. They were the ones which if I look back I was not sure. It would happen as it did but it did. I was very fortunate that I worked for an organization like Greenlay and then I also quote the point of change there, they were moving  from hierarchical to less hierarchical more meritocracy based. More open to the diversity that was present in India, present as in not just Anglo Saxon English speaking Indians but also just looking at the wider variety of Indians that worked there, not just men and women. So sometimes you are just fortunate because you are at that point of change where the organization accepts you, so I would say that was a very important one and I think Morgan Stanley and heading it in India was another important step. It was for me quite an important step starting from the scratch and I think that became a milestone. And to take it from nowhere to ones amongst the top as we were ranked at that time amonst the top investment banking industries including forming the joint venture with JM because when i took the deal TO JM I had to fight an internal fight with Morgan Stanley for a while for them to agree that I could even approach JM for this. And then HSBC itself, because HSBC had only ever had one Indian head and he had been a part of the international manager cadre and himself was an UK citizen but an Indian, and there was no one else and he was like 30 years in the bank So I joined HSBC on the express understanding that I could have a shot at being the head of the bank. Also I came from investment banking and the fact that came to pass was I think quite an important milestone Because I had to prove my ways, I had no commitments, it was a chance I took, living Morgan Stanley and investment banking to join HSBC which was not so important as investment banking with a view to that next big step. So that risk was a very important milestone when that materialized. And these all happened because you had good bosses, people to support you and because the organization was ready to accept change as well. So each of those job changes were important milestones in themselves. I could have gone wrong because there were risks I took, they could have gone horribly wrong. The risks were worth taking in the hindsight. That way different because some of the women who have made it had made it through the same organization by working very long. 

    GJ: What propelled you to write the book Contemporary Banking in India?

    NLK: Essentially there is no book on banking in India. It does not exist, I was amazed to find it did not exist, so that’s what inspired me to pull it together knowing that it would be easier for me because I knew all the players that I had the frameworks which I thought were important or them to come and then be able to persuade on that subject because otherwise everyone wants to write on the same subjects. I had to make sure that we had a reasonable spread of areas. I see this book being a reference book for young people coming into banking, young people working in BPO’s of service banking, university kids, policymakers. There are a lot of people who impinge on the world of banking without really knowing the whole thing and I really don’t know how they educate themselves, so just to make it an easy read for young people in particular, for anyone who is interested in understanding that what banking in India is about and using the opportunity of having the best people, real practitioners not professors telling the story. 

    GJ: What kind of rural activities are you personally involved in?

    NLK: I sat on board of grass roots training programme for women. The real role that I can play is not teaching someone embroidery but really the overall sort of visioning and financing and making sure the NGO was well run and helping with network to establish linkages of corporates etc. The corporate linkages which enable what these women do to be connected with the market, both ways. So really using my networks and understanding of the global and the financial world to help them. But in order to understand the issues you have to go to the grassroots and understand why certain things are not happening for them, how they should go about it, resolving their problems. So sometimes it’s as simple as when it is the quality of thread that they buy, if all the labour goes down to waste because the quality then it’s no use expecting a better quality product. You need to provide solutions as well. My engagement at best is superficial because I got a full job otherwise but it’s certainly an area where whenever I have dabbled in it and do the work I come back feeling a lot more better than what India and Indian women are about.

    GJ: I have read about the work you have done for women working in HSBC and financial institutions… Can you tell us a little bit about women empowerment in the glossy world?

    NLK: I think women are doing very well and I take a lot of pride that in our banks particularly, women have done very well. And I think a lot of it is just networks and friendships that get formed. It is very important that each organization have a scale. If the lone woman works much harder than if you are a battalion. So you have to create enough depth where women can find each other and it’s very important to sensitize the men to the fact that women can work differently. I think the ideal organization is where a woman is not afraid to say that I have a kid at home, I am going to leave at 5andI am going to get the job done. 

    I think the frankness of being able to share that I dont have to prove myself by sitting in office till 9 in the evening and that I am ready to work from 7 to 12 once my children are asleep. And working out a schedule for the work is important for men also. Being sensitized to the fact that ultimately it is the output, it’s not the show of sitting in office from 9 to 9 and I think that change at a manager level becomes very important in terms of attitude and approach. But women can also be very harsh bosses, particularly the older breed of women who went through the system saying they had to prove themselves all the way and it’s very hard to tolerate women who make excuses for their time so sometimes the complaints I have heard of is from women, on women subordinates because they believe that they need to be toughened up and not to the point that the environment is unfriendly. I think there is a balance there which women cant use, motherhood and pregnancy as an excuse. But organizations must also be sensitive to their needs and if the woman is delivering at the level that you would require in terms of work, at the end of the day it’s her brain and her mind that you are using her for and f she is able to give you the output at a  level which is acceptable then the fact that she is not physically there and that flexible work hours being used by her which the organization permits should not be held against her. We were the first organization in the country that introduced flexible work hour. And wherever possible it was introduced for both men and women across the organization. Initially 60% of the uptake was from men and mostly senior men. We realized that it was actually a nee in the organization and it wasn’t for women alone. It was an eye opener and it is 50-50 even now. But the organisation’s ability to enable that is much harder than you would believe. Because to have that fist conversation is to have lot of hesitation. To train the managers was actually far more important than just putting the system in. It also needs continuous rejuvenation, but when you put it in it really changes the work environment. 

    Another simple thing that I did when I took over as the CEO of the bank everywhere in the world we worked for five days a week, we had a six days a week and I had 5 days a week and initially our costs went up in a very small way. We worked for 5 days but added only half hours more to the days of the week. Saturdays the branch staff had to work. They worked in shifts. So people had a five days week. It was amazing; it was like putting new blood in the organization. Actually our productivity went up and our costs went down because our electricity costs were saved. So it ended up exactly as we had hoped. And I didn’t do it because of women; I just did it because I thought lets do it because it just makes sense both in terms of morale and costs. 

    GJ: How do you de-stress? 

    NLK: Well the family is a big de-stressor which constitutes of family members, dogs, short wildlife trips to jungles and also music. I am particularly fond of Indian and western classical music and I hear a lot of that and I even like opera. Also, a big de-stressor is where my husband works, in rural areas. It is kind of a social entrepreneurship so I go with him in some of his trips when I am on leave and he is on work. It’s not just about microfinance but about creating livelihood to help women earn their living. 

    GJ: What is the less known fact about Mrs Kidwai?

    NLK: My husband is Muslim and his name is Rashid Kidwai and that in itself is also a little less usual. I never thought of it much because we met socially and there were enough points in our marriage like our parents and older generation people questioned or asked do you know what you are doing or are you sure. So there were never moments which I paused to think but I was always still surprised that at this day and age it’s a question on people’s minds which is quite telling. Amongst an intelligence here, progressive educated India it can still be an issue in India. 

    GJ: How would you like to be remembered?

    NLK: Harvard Business School has a case going on me now which they would be teaching in January, so may be that will give me a better idea of how I would like to be remembered. But I think with love and respect.  


  • Mary Kom

    As a child she loved every kind of sport, but it was boxing that made her feel most ‘alive’. Perhaps because it required a combative atmosphere and provided an outlet for the fighting spirit that defined her. A fighter to the finish, as a child Mary was refused by a coach in the initial days – dismissing her to be too small in frame – but she persisted till he finally gave in and took her on as his student. A mother of three now, the boxer in her still alive, Mary is one of the finest icons for women, men and sports in this country.  

    G.J. -    Your biggest rival at one point was Sarita, another boxer in your weight category. She was almost sent for the Olympics instead of you. Can you tell us about your experience with her?

    M.K. -    The trials had just gotten over. The next day, some of my friends told me that I had not been selected. I didn’t believe them. Three or four days later, I saw Sarita and her face was shining. So I called up Muralidharan Raja, the Secretary of the Boxing Federation and asked him whether he’d watched both of us carefully. He hadn’t come for the selection trial himself, but he had watched the recording. I asked him to watch it again, as only he could do justice in this case. I knew I deserved it more than she did. Three days later, I called him again and asked what he thought, pointed out that our fight had gone fifty-fifty. He said we would have to do another trial. After the World Championship at Barbados, we came back to Delhi and held the trial the next day. I fought all my National Camp fellows again, and this time, I emerged the winner.

    G.J. -    Do you think you’ve faced any discrimination in your journey?

    M.K. -    Yes, it’s happened many times.. But I am a fighter. I’m an Indian. Even if I look different, have a different face and skin colour, I know I am an Indian and I’m proud to be one.
    But I also take responsibility for my own fitness. If I’m not fit then I can’t go to National Camp. There are five of us boxers in the same weight category, and only one can be selected to go international. 

    G.J.- I have heard that family means a lot to you. Could you tell me a little about your family life?

    M.K.- It is important, but to be successful, I have had to sacrifice my time with them. I left for training a year after having my twins. I am lucky to have a supportive husband. He takes care of everything in the family so I can focus on my own career.When we met the first time, we were instantly comfortable, treating each other like brother and sister. He has four brothers, and every time I visited their place, we would have lunch and dinner together. He would always drop me home afterwards.I think we are made for each other.We were talking about getting married in 2002. I talked to my family and he talked to his family. My family didn’t want me to get married so soon, but me and Onler both wanted it.

    G.J. -    Why didn’t your family want it?

    M.K. -    They were worried about my career. After marriage, most sportspeople’s careers slow down.My father was worried about that. I convinced him that I wouldn’t let it affectmy career.

    G.J. -When you went for your first tournament in 2001, boxing was not really recognised as a profitable sport in India.What kept you focused despite the financial issues, lack of emotional and Government support?

    M.K. -    I loved every kind of sport, and played every kind. But the fighting sports, like boxing, made me come alive.

    G.J. -    Did you feel at a disadvantage because you only started the sport at the age of 18?

    M.K. -    There were some disadvantages, but I learned very quickly. I was very active when I was young and I loved martial arts, gymnastics, all of it. I used to learn everything. My body is very flexible. I taught myself a lot. I watched men boxing, and I was very interested in the sport. I started athletics in 1999 and one of my friendstold me that women’s boxing would be introduced in 2000. I asked my friends to ask a coach to train me. At first he refused, saying I was too small. But I was persistent, and finally convinced him.

    G.J. -    And then you got yourself trained and ready in one year for the world championship! Was it very difficult?

    M.K. -    It is very difficult. But I was passionate, patient and very interested in being ready for it. 

    G.J. -    How many hours in a day did you train?

    M.K. -    I trained morning and evening. After morning practice, I would go to school. After I came back, I would practice what I had done in the morning, preparing myself for the evening session. I would train every second, no matter what I was doing.

    G.J. -    What are the qualities that you think have made you successful?

    M.K. -    I have always been a very active person, up and about 24 hours a day. In Manipur, my home, I receive about four to five visitors every day.They always want to talk. I try to help them, and my community, with whatever problems they bring me. But now it’s getting hard to do this as I’m running my own academy. I have to look after 30/40 boxers.

    G.J. -    How do you look after these boxers?

    M.K. -    I provide them everything—accommodation, food—free of cost. That was rather difficult at first. I couldn’t ask the government for any help because we had no achievements to show. I ran the academy out of my own pocket. Now, after the Olympic Bronze, everyone, including the government, wants to support my efforts. 
    Things have changed so much after winning that medal. Earlier, I was nothing. Even when I was five-time world champion, no one came home to invite me to anything. Now everyone wants me to be their chief guest, guest of honour. My God! But even in Manipur, you have to pay to be a chief guest or guest of honour —ten thousand, twenty thousand, whatever the organisers want.

    G.J. -     What inspired you to start this academy?

    M.K. -    I’m from a poor family and many of students are from similar background. I just want to help them, support them. They have talent. All of them may not be champions, but at least one or two will, and they deserve to have that chance.

    G.J. -    What qualities you look for in those you train?

    M.K. -    I’m looking for those who are interested in pursuingboxing as a career. I do have a dream of finding the next Mary Kom!

    G.J. -    What’s your typical day like?

    M.K. -    It’s like any normal person’s day.  I am up at six. I finish my cooking and then head for practice, by 7:30 or 8. After that I eat lunch, usually around 11. Then I train again till 4/5 in the evening. After I finish my work I might watch a movie, or lie down and listen to music.

    G.J. -    What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from your journey?

    M.K. -    I’ve learnt a lot, different lessons from different aspects of my life, and I try to share them with my students. I try to teach them to be humble, to keep their lives in order. I teach them to be independent, to do things for themselves. This will come in handy in both their professional and personal lives.

    G.J. - Your story is being adapted into a movie. How does it feel to become such a big star overnight?

    M.K. -  I am a boxer. That was my one aim and ambition throughout. I was not at all sure about whether I would succeed. I had no idea I would become a celebrity. Later on, I realised what that entailed and how fans are such an important factor in keeping you supported and encouraged. Without their support and love, I could not have become a champion. 

    Mary Kom


    Life changed dramatically for Anu when her husband, also the then Chairman of Thermax, suffered a stroke. She watched helplessly, as the brilliant man she knew till then, suddenly struggled to speak or even move. If these were trying years for Anu Aga, nothing in the world could have prepared her for what was to follow. She was to lose not just her husband, but also her young son in quick succession. And even while she struggled to make sense of it all, the weight of a dying family business was lodged on her shoulders. Broken and full of self-doubt, yet, taking each blow in her stride, she walked on…crafting an invincible story on resilience and inspiration.  

    GJ: How would you describe your childhood?

    AA: I had a very unusual childhood, though I wouldn’t call it a happy one. My father was very keen on having a boy as his first child. According to his wish, he had two boys and I arrived as his third child. Though my arrival was welcomed, I realized that my acceptance in the family was conditional. My father was very fond of me and very partial towards me, but my brothers meant much more to my mother. 

    I would say that I had a reasonably good childhood. I did well in studies and was the head girl of my school. I joined St Xavier’s College and studied economics and politics, but I was very interested in social work. I attended camps twice a year and we went to slums to help out. It was because of this interest in social work that I was encouraged to join the Tata Institute of Social Sciences where I studied medical and psychiatric social work. My father had a small business in Mumbai and while my brothers were often encouraged to join his business, I was never asked to do so. I never even expected to join the business. In those days, the only professions open to women were those of a doctor, teacher or nurse. I didn’t see any women in businesses. So, I concluded that women never joined businesses. 

    GJ: What part of your personality was shaped by your father? 

    AA: The reader in me and my intellectual side have been influenced by my father. Also, in a sense, the social work, like not indulging in your own wealth. My mother encouraged me to be natural, down-to-earth, and have fun, just like her. 

    GJ: Before taking up responsibility as the human resources head at Thermax, you were a homemaker. How was the transition from being a full-time homemaker to a professional woman?

    AA: After receiving my degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I was accepted as a faculty assistant for the first year. Then, I worked at a child guidance clinic as a psychiatric social worker. But when we moved to Pune, I gave up my full-time job. However, I was always involved in some kind of activity. I studied transactional analysis and became a counsellor in a school. I also worked with social groups and was involved in Mother Teresa’s home. I brought two street boys to my house and took charge of them, and had them admitted to a school. My husband was always supportive of my work. The boys stayed with me for a week, but then they ran away because they preferred their freedom of watching movies and eating good food over leading a regimented life that I was offering them. 

    GJ: How would you describe the twelve years of working together with your husband?

    AA: Working with my husband as him being a boss was difficult in the beginning because I was used to being an equal. I was heading the human resources department, and he would take me for granted and say that we could always discuss issues at home, which I didn’t like. But once I accepted that he is a boss and all bosses have their idiosyncrasies and I have to manage it, we became very close. When I got involved in the work, I understood his passion and I also became like him. His first love was his work. 

    I thoroughly enjoyed working with my husband. Sometimes there were challenges when I had to juggle between my work and look after my household duties. But it all worked out fine.

    GJ: How did you both come to terms with his heart attack and subsequent paralysis? 

    AA: It was a very difficult time. Initially, I could not understand the medical terminology being used to describe his condition. All I found out was that my husband couldn’t recognize me, was talking gibberish, his right side was paralyzed, and this brilliant man was reduced to being almost a vegetable. We equip our children with education, so that they can take on responsibilities. But in times like these, even a good education does not help. One tiny blood clot took away my husband’s intelligence. Nothing is guaranteed in life: neither intelligence, nor degrees. He had to re-learn everything from scratch. Fortunately, my husband had no depression; rather, he had tremendous anger against the medical world and also towards the family because, I think, he felt that if he didn’t have a family and its responsibility, he wouldn’t have done the bypass operation. 

    We hired a speech therapist who taught him to read and write, and he practised for days. My admiration for him went up manifold for the tremendous amount of grit he possessed. The physiotherapist said it would take him a month to tie his shoelace. My husband practiced it all night and was able to do it himself the next day. It took him about two years to get back whatever he had lost. But, my good-natured, lovely husband became a terribly cranky man, yelling and shouting at us all the time, which was very difficult to accept. 

    GJ: How did you cope with these struggles?

    AA: I never expected to see a complete change of personality in my husband. To see a brilliant man learning his alphabets again was very difficult. I even pondered over the idea of divorcing him when confronted with his anger and tantrums, but I realized that I love this man and I am not going to leave him. I confronted him and told him that he cannot take out his anger on our daughter or on me. And I must say that the discipline I put on him helped him, though he continued with his tantrums a bit. I always find that difficult periods bring out the best in you, when you tap the unused resources and find strength to deal with impossible things and situations. I was able to come out stronger and the relationship strengthened. 

    GJ: A few years later, he passed away. How did you handle this loss?

    AA: My husband died ten to fifteen years after his stroke. That was a difficult time again. I had promised my daughter that I would be with her for six months after she delivered her baby. So, I was with her and my husband visited us twice. We celebrated his sixtieth birthday. After six months, when I was returning home, he came to Mumbai to pick me up. But before he could come to the airport, he had a massive heart attack and he died at the guest house. 

    To soften the blow, one of my employees said that my husband had a massive heart attack, and it was my brother who gave me the news of his death. My son, who was with me and had come back from abroad just a week ago to be close to his father, was very upset that his father died within a week of his coming back. My daughter, son-in-law and grandson came to India to be with me permanently.

    GJ: And then you lost your son. How did you cope with the concept of death?

    AA: Death is death. Yes, I lost my husband and my son, both. And, of course, there are times when I still miss them very much and I cry. That we will all die, is a certainty. But we don’t accept that certainty because we don’t know when, where and how we are going to die. The sun rises and it sets. You don’t expect the sun to stay throughout the day. Similarly, all of us have to vacate this earth and if we don’t, can you imagine the chaos? So, I would request you for your own sake to not shy away from death. This acceptance will teach you to take out time and do things when people are alive. Neither to postpone, nor to procrastinate. If you want to say ‘sorry’ to someone, say it today; if you want to spend quality time, do it today. I don’t think death is morbid at all. I take it as inevitable, as a reality that we can’t run away from. 

    GJ: Working at Thermax for twelve years would have given you a strong grounding but when you were requested to chair the company, after your husband’s demise, what was your reaction?

    AA: It was terrible. I didn’t want to be in-charge of the company. My husband was an ostrich. We used to say what will happen to the company after you and he would say you wwill know what to do. He had a favourite executer and we all expected him to be the head. But, I think the senior executives were happier with me being in-charge because they thought that this woman could do whatever she wants. I am a tough cookie. Somehow, the board also wanted me to take charge. So, they asked me to be the executive chairperson. I was full of self-doubt and I kept saying it to myself that it’s because we own the majority shares that this has been given to me. I haven’t earned it by my merit and hence, don’t deserve it. 

    I was in a terrible state of mind and I went to Vipasana in November, nine months after my husband’s death. Those ten days at Vipasana were extremely helpful. I realized that I can give my best, and that it was pointless to keep comparing myself with my husband and feeling inadequate. I also realized that all of us have an ordinary and an extraordinary side, and it is so much easier to define ourselves as ordinary. But to get in touch with our extraordinary side and to give the best at every opportunity is what life is all about. 

    GJ: How did Vipasana transform you? What was that one thought that changed everything?

    AA: It was the inadequateness within me, and yet the faith that I felt in my own capability. I was ready to take over and give out my best. That was a huge change from feeling very inadequate and full of self-doubts to feeling that I could manage this company. Also, I became aware of and accepted that death is inevitable, and we must make the best use of our time because it’s very short and limited. I have uncovered a lot which is very helpful. These are the things people seek to experience in life. 

    GJ: When you started chairing the company, where did you find your strength? Who were your support systems at that time?

    AA: It was my family and my senior team at the company. They are a wonderful set of people and I must say, I experienced the world as very kind. In consideration to the Indian industry, they asked me to join the National Committee and out of 100 members, I was the only woman there and everyone was so kind to me. They wanted to help me in every which way. 

    GJ: What management practices did you apply?

    AA: We hired a consulting company which my executives didn’t want to. Men find it difficult to ask for help while it is easier for women to do so. We had to accept the fact that we weren’t doing well, which people were deluding themselves of. We had walked into many unrelated activities like software, electronics, bottled water and others which were not our core competency. But to be aware of it and to make a tough decision as to come out of this meant asking many people to leave, and this was a tough task. But we had to do it. There were many changes at the top level also. We had to change our managing director’s position, and also bring in the culture of ‘performance’. Every company loves innovation, and that means tolerance: as our tolerance for mistakes went up, the factor of innovation went up, too. If you have no tolerance for mistakes, innovation doesn’t set in. So, we had to bring back the innovative culture and we allowed people to make genuine mistakes. We reconstituted our entire work. I don’t think any company in India has done that. 

    We had nine executive directors. They are all people who have done very well for the company and as a reward, my husband had asked them to join the board. And as long as we were doing well, it was alright. But for the executive directors to objectively look at their performance and say we haven’t done well was not something they could do, and they kept coming up with excuses. So, we reconstituted the entire board. We now have five non-executive directors and our managing director is the only executive director. Changing the whole board was a tough decision to make, and a very tough thing to do. 

    GJ: Did you feel the backlash or a strong force coming against you, given the drastic changes you were bringing about?

    AA: Not at all. It was done in a caring and humane way. I wasn’t ruthless in executing things and everyone saw how badly we were doing. We had gone public. I explained to my employees and to my executive directors what I was trying to do. In fact, it was one of our non-executive director’s suggestion to change the entire board. So, there was a lot of understanding. 

    Once I am convinced of something, I can take tough decisions. I have done it all my life: as a mother, as the chair of my company, and whenever there has been such a need. But I have done it with compassion and care. And not a single member of my senior team or my family has deserted me. 

    GJ: You have a degree in social service, and in psychiatry. Did this influence your leadership style? 

    AA: I don’t have a technical name for my style of work. You just need to be true to yourself, show your vulnerability, take all the help you need and rely on people. You don’t give up saying whatever is going to happen will happen.Rather than this fatalistic approach, have an active approach where you do your very best, and then leave it to destiny. 

    GJ: Do you think your ‘dinner table’ conversations with your husband and/ or father shaped your performance at Thermax?

    AA: I admire my husband’s style and I am sure it definitely helped me a lot. However, at home, I had my mother-in-law and children who were tired of hearing about Thermax and who very often expressed their displeasure at us talking business at home. 

    GJ: You strongly believe in education. You have a programme called ‘Teach for India’; you support a cultural foundation; and the Thermax social initiative is also into education. Please elaborate on your contribution to the education sector.

    AA: My son was a great believer, and he propagated that a substantial part of our money should go to the social sector. He was always looking out for a credible NGO for the same. At that time, my association with Akanksha, the NGO, happened, and it developed my enthusiasm for the education sector. In 2009, Shaheen Mistri, the face of Akanksha, and I, started ‘Teach for India’ together. Through Akanksha, we ran four municipal schools and Thermax Foundation financially supports three of them. I got very involved in these schools. I have chosen to focus a little more on primary education. I see malnourishment and lack of education as the two greatest problems that India is facing. Unless we deal with these two issues, employment and skill development will not be possible. Our elementary education is a mess and I wish more people would realize how bad it is. 

    My main focus is working with Akanksha and the schools for ‘Teach for India’. I am on the board of some companies, helping them with their social work. In the next ten years, I hope I can start a teacher training institute, which will be a model institute. I hope to continue with my work in the education sector, rather than focussing on too many things. 

    GJ: You have now handed over the reins of the company to your daughter, Meher. How different is yours and Meher’s leadership style? 

    AA: Meher is a chemical engineer and so, she knows all the technical things. She takes great interest in equipment and likes to go into details, which I don’t. She has imbibed the family values and is caring. In that sense, we are both the same. She is all for reaching out, and spending our profit for social causes. However, she is a little less trusting of people than I am. She would like to know more before she plunges into something while I take the plunge and then find out. I am far more reactive than she is, and she is a better listener than I am. 

    GJ: Post retirement, how do you spend your day?

    AA: I get up early since I need to put in one hour of meditation, forty-five minutes of exercise, and forty-five minutes of breathing exercises, all of which I do before I come to work. Spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren, is also very important. I also have to take care of so many responsibilities. I like reading, I enjoy western classical music, and like to spend time with family and friends. I used to love dancing at parties, but I hardly go to parties now. I don’t like late nights. I used to love going on holidays, but that doesn’t excite me anymore, except going with my grandchildren. We go for a holiday every year. 

    GJ: How have you changed seeing the various facets of life? 

    AA: I have become more committed to causes. I work much harder and am more disciplined today. I am losing out on having fun in life as there is little less time to relax. Life is always one thing after another. I like filling up my time because that’s a need in me. I have also become tougher, and people have noticed that. I can be dominating because I don’t need to please others. However, I love pleasing my family and friends but not for the wrong reasons. 

    GJ: You won the Padma Shri in 2010 for social services. How did that feel?

    AA: Though I appreciate external awards, it doesn’t touch me much because that is someone else’s evaluation of my work. What really motivates me are the challenges that I set for myself. They may be simple things like not over-eating, or to do my Vipasana daily, or my daily exercises and walks, and similar things. Walking an extra mile to reach out to people who matter to me is more important and valuable than winning awards. 

    GJ: Do you think women make better leaders?

    AA: No, some women make outstanding leaders, just like some men do. There is no gender bias here, but women tend to balance work life better as they are a little more governance-oriented. Women are considered softer; men take tougher decisions. 

    GJ: What would your advice be to women on fighting the glass ceiling?

    AA: You have to have faith in yourself, continue to invest in yourself and be more competent. The key is to fight it without bitterness, if there is an injustice. Very often, women misuse their position. There is very little room at the top. Many men don’t make it, just as many women also don’t make it. And when they don’t make it, they use their being a woman as an excuse: that is not fair. Sometimes, I also find women do not help other women, which I disapprove of. Also, it is important to remember that a change does not happen overnight; it takes time. Ask for a change, maybe even be a bit impatient. But don’t be bitter and become anti-men. 

    GJ: Why do you think it’s important for women to have a purpose in life? 

    AA: It’s very important for both women and men to have a purpose in life beyond getting married and having children, and beyond a career. I don’t consider a career as the final purpose. One should attempt to find out what excites one and what brings out the best in one. Though it is not easy to achieve, one should aim for what one believes in.

    GJ: In one of your interviews in the Forbes magazine, you said, ‘Money doesn’t matter to me.’ Please elaborate. 

    AA: What I mean is that we all require a certain amount of money for our needs, but beyond that, it doesn’t add to our happiness. In fact, it can lead to a lot of disruption in a family. I have seen a lot of rich people spoiling their children by giving them so many options, without disciplining them. So, it has gone against keeping the family together. I think money gives you the options, but the key lies in using those options wisely. 

    GJ: How do you want to be remembered?

    AA: As someone who is authentic, loving and caring. I love these lines which I read sometime back: ‘Our stay on this earth is short, our rules dispensable and nothing but inconsequential.’ This holds such a lot of balance in our life. You think you have done a really big thing but it’s actually nothing. Institutes go on without you, nations go on without leaders. I feel humility is so important to retain in life. Being true to myself rather than making an appearance for the public is also important to me. 



    When the two words ‘fashion’ and ‘India’ come together, hers is the obvious name that comes to mind. A pioneer in the field, as much a revivalist, Ritu Kumar could be given singular credit for introducing the very concept of fashion in clothing in India. Yet, she hates being called a ‘fashion designer’. A woman who has dedicated her life to travelling to the remotest corners of this country in a bid to rediscover, preserve and represent ancient aesthetics in embroidery and craft, hers has been no mean contribution. She tells us why the long and hard journey might not have been a lonely one, but it indeed has been stubborn.  

    GJ: Looking back nearly five decades of leading the fashion industry, what would you say are the main qualities for someone to follow a success curve like yours?

    RK: I just instinctively wanted to do things which I communicated with and then you have to be very conscious that you are not going to stray away from your path because many times we are told that we are old fashioned, traditional aunties or whatever you know. But I was very clear that if it was not happening then I am going out of it, I am not going down a path which I am not convinced about. So one thing led to another and I was lucky. Aesthetics, instinct, and understanding one’s own country is very important. And you cannot impress everyone.

    GJ: You have dressed so many women for the last 45 years, what is your idea of a quintessential woman?

    RK: Basically, it doesn’t matter Indian or western, I always find that the women who are more confident about who they are dress better always. They make the choices. I don’t think as a designer you can impose your choices on people and you shouldn’t other than offering a classic sort of something. But people who are more confident about themselves dress better. Then you are not imitating anybody. You are yourself. It makes a huge difference.

    GJ: If you had to define a Ritu Kumar creation in one sentence, how would you define it?

    RK: It doesn’t necessarily have to do with fashion. It is something which has a lot to do with being from this country, identifying what we turn as lifestyle aesthetics and translating it into something that has become the collection. You have to get the essence of it and how you like to put it because I really don’t see myself as a fashion designer because there are a certain parameters that follows if you were doing a fashion designing. While starting my career if I’d had to choose NIFT as my option then perhaps I wouldn’t have. It would not be the area I would have gone to. It is not my discipline it is not my interest. So I think I went through it through the crafts root and got interested in a wider range that happens around textiles which is in this country lot to do with the people and the society and the continuation of very old aesthetic and through that because it has to be translated into something it got initially into saris and then into clothes. So, I think that is the route I took.

    GJ: You joined the fashion industry in 1960 when it was a lot about textile and embroidery, you were more into traditional garments and now, you moved into your new creation Label and it’s also a lot more about prints and cuts. Given that, how else would you say has fashion transformed in the last 50 years of your experience in the industry?

    RK: It has been from being not there to today as an entity. There was no such thing as retail space or experience or there was not any retail space or there was no such thing as a designer and it was very post independence and very nascent in its format. So, all these things were created after that. It was a time when there was a lot of innovation was going on in the country at that time whether it was creation of fine arts or music or just the general cultural milieu, not only in textile but in every field as well. That’s when my work started, so it started through that route and not through the route of fashion.

    GJ: When did you first learn the word ‘fashion’?

    RK: When I went to Brighton on a scholarship. I got an understanding of what fashion is in America. In 1964–65 when I got the entire understanding of it.  

    GJ: Did you travel a lot as a child?  

    RK: Not as much a child as after I started working, I traveled all over the world as there were no designers at that time. Then, I was doing the entire editing of designing for my husband’s company and even now, that’s what I have been so involved with. So, you know I got a truly bird’s view of the entire world.

    GJ: How do you feel being called the pioneer in the industry?

    RK: I think it has to be the oldest in the industry and in the fact that what I started, a lot of my contemporaries stayed with just the crafts for one reason or the other. I got into a lot of exports in textile. So, my exposure to international fashion world became so much wider that it was possible to take the next step from the crafts and try and move it to a more contemporized garments as well so that’s how that transition happened.

    GJ: You did a lot of things alone; you did not have a role model in the Indian set up… did you find the journey lonely ever?

    RK: It was never lonely. I did not know where it was going. You only do that in life when you have a goal in front of you two things happened. First, I discovered all these amazing places, you know there were lot of patriotism at that point of time much more than is apparent at the moment because you just take it for granted. With us, it was the first generation and we were more interested in fashion, finding a root in our own country and so, when I discovered all these places that became almost passionate to continue with them. And at the same time, it so happened that my husband and I started working together and he started a very large export house of garments, so I think it was always a little hobby at the side the retail part. It was a hobby since they were subsidized because there was no financial sense in doing what I was doing, then I was reviving things in the villages, it was not as remunerative I was doing a lot of revival of trends, it actually site up a base for finding of things and then I became a very proficient print designer but there was no such thing in any case in the country. So, the journey was not lonely; it was just stubborn more than anything else. 

    But I knew what I was going to collect some stuff from Europe and I did that professionally like any profession. It was just something I did. I had my soul into that. But you know writing the books and everything was something I was doing for my own self or for the areas that I started working in. After a point when you get a commitment it’s very selfish you can’t just walk out and say I’m done with this village, I can’t be bothered anymore, you know you can’t. So it was a journey and then one thing led to the other, I started hand block printing, and then zardosi. I did a couple of projects with SEVA and then you tend to become a catalyst because you brought on the change in the table, the change that was needed in moving that craft to handloom and to make it more user friendly and it was necessary that they were selling through our stores. I would do these projects just to help that area and I found that highly satisfying and in those days there were a lot of people who were with me, Laila Tayebji and people who were working over there and I would also interact with them, but it just seemed a non ending journey actually because there is so much in handlooms that can be done and so I was really looking for an opening in these stores in India and then things happened on their own. 

    Yes, very clearly what I did want to do was to put an input in anything where I could bring about the kind of change that I saw within my own life time. You know the time when I started, you would be surprised that there was not a boutique to be seen. Everybody is wearing these printed saris with pearls, and for the people who are affluent this was the only resource of wearing elegant and chic clothes as there was no parallel thing in the country. At your age I guess you can’t even imagine what that was like. Because a lot has happened in 40 years, but you know a lot could have not happened is what my thing was, I mean I used to travel so much, I saw what was happening in China and I saw what was happening in Japan all of there the crafts were gone and we could have gone exactly the same route where you would not be wearing what you are wearing today, you would be wearing a little black dress with print because there was no other option and the options were patent in my own lifetime in the country which was highly exciting. So there in which was actually pretty accidental, even if it was no design, the design of course was there which I was working with my husband and export became a career for person again by default and this part of it was like something was in your fate and you had to do it and you had to enjoy this part of the world also which is being highly satisfying. You know in the time I started I remembered what would people wear for their wedding, they would bring something from Europe and they would put something that was not even a part of our ethos, it was just things patched together because you know the older things had died and there was nothing to replace it with. So you know we were actually very close to losing what ever little was left in the memory of our crafts, in textiles in particular as a matter of fact in everything you know whether it was patiala or churni, the original arts and the professional arts I mean they were all gone. 

    We were created because of that fact, because our generation found the lack of it and the tragedy of being without it for a 150 yrs under the British and of course it had in a certain way of civilization the remnance from the past will always be there in an old industry if not in the original history but most of the history comes down orally to us. So we did remember that we had the dhup-chao fabric and we remember that there was something highly exotic hanging around somewhere. A lot of it happened because I think post independence the whole culture was different, we were almost in the role of a barefoot doctor type of thing. We went into areas where there is no road, no place to stay; we were just on the road to the discovery of the country which was another amazing journey.

    GJ: If you could share your thoughts on retail fashion. 

    RK: You know how fortunate we are in this country, we have a space which can do that and you travel I’m sure,  you go to London and you go to Top shop or you go down High street or Bond street you see the company labels and it’s more or less give or take at a different price level for the same fare which we were very close to being a civilization also inundated by multinationals because they have the skill they have the power and the money and they have everything going for them and they have a 100 year old history in fashion and it can be so impressive and also they have the media power. So you now if they can sell a Birkin without anybody understanding why they are buying it or wearing it, it is a sociological happening which was very close to happening in this country as well, I think partly it was that which was driving me, because every time I’d go to Europe I’d say how sick is this, it’s ok if you have it I mean I wear those clothes also but not as in brain washing of a country which has so much. So I think perhaps that was the goal if you are saying that there was a goal. I mean you are blessed with the fact that it works with your culture and your climate and your lifestyles. But when the whole world is convinced that you just throw that all out of the window, it’s also doing a lot to your brain because if you also then throwing out a lot of other stuff which is associated with your culture. Perhaps, if I had not got the exposure as much to the outside world then I would not be able to appreciate what we had as much as I did.

    GJ: Where do you think Indian fashion stands against the international fashion industry today?

    RK: We haven’t even scratched the surface. Actually somebody has and they are not considered as designers and that is another thing that confuses me. I think Fab India has scratched the surface or even to some extent Anokhi. They have got a look, a feel, they know what they are doing and they are reaching out to a market which the Promod’s can’t. Even they’ve got an identity, they’ve got a scale also, but most people tell me that they are not designers, this I don’t understand. I feel they have a very strong designer identity. I mean I can wear a Fab India kurta if they were cut better actually but there is a look and feel about that whole product line. But people just feel that if they are not looking hot on the ramp in Paris it’s not fashion. This is a big problem with the young designers. I am just sharing this with you because you are talking to so many different people maybe you’ll be able to explain to me what is this? 

    GJ: What do you think is next for the cottage industry?  

    RK: I think it will grow because Indian fashion industry has proved everybody wrong. I thought now we would be dominated completely, as a matter of 10 years back I thought this is it, like when it opened up I thought I will not be able to take the competition with all these brands coming up; I just didn’t think we would but it seemed to be good. I think Indian fashion has had its real surprising moments, to me the fact that now everybody’s wardrobe has got both western and Indian clothes where I thought the Indian will be thrown out. I was waiting for the day when everybody will be wearing white dresses to their wedding, like it could happened like it happened all over the world. We are kind resilient you know. I think we like to look pretty. We just don’t like looking androgynous. Whenever I put on a collection which is androgynous I fail. It just does. The spookily dog like collection doesn’t work in India, so we want to look pretty, we love to look over the top in our own way and that kind of resilience is a psyche thing, you just can’t wipe it out. Come summer we will wear holi colours no matter what they are shrieking is the worn in Paris, it doesn’t not make lot of difference in India. And I think after a point black is a big bow. We have surprise ourselves and we have gone through the cycles of various kinds of dresses and there is a mix now. I think basically it’s flattering because we think that the world has stopped looking at fashion as something that is flattering. It doesn’t flatter them anymore. You should analyze what people in Paris are wearing, they look so boring, so drab, unless you’re size 16 or 0 less there is nothing for anybody, it’s all lycra and stretched and minimal clothes they’ve lost the colour and it does nothing for anybody. But you see fashion cannot look at itself objectively. It has to sell next year so they change the colour to brow or something you know and they have lost the ability to lose colour completely.

    GJ: What do you say is the difference between being in fashion and being in vogue because we are talking about seasons here and collections?

    RK: I think they are part of the same thing, I think perhaps you are asking me that being in vogue you are a victim. You had it because you are going to follow everything that is going to come your way or whatever is prescribed. I think the definition of being in fashion is what you are comfortable in. Comfortable in the sense both in terms of what you feel you should be touching in the morning when you look at your cupboard; it does have to do with climate, society where you are going, what you are going to be. I don’t think I will wear a pair of jeans if I have to go to the village, I’d feel a little out. So you know what you are comfortable in is what you should be in fashion and what is in vogue is of course the highest heel, the most uncomfortable stockings, the impossible dresses where you have to keep pulling and pushing yourself around. Most fashion internationally works on making you unhappy about the way you are. It’s totally true and my philosophy on working for fashion is that I’d love to do clothes which make people feel good about themselves and not inadequate that they have to keep on changing it five times before they can leave the house. This is a big problem with western fashion.

    GJ: Because you’ve seen the generations grow it has been wonderful perhaps to just watch it. You have a background in art, history, and musicology. How has that influenced your designing?

    RK: That really paid off. Because I was doing a course in Ashutosh museum, Calcutta University, after I got married because I was an art and history student before and I go into an archaeological digging situation around Calcutta, which is where I discovered all these villages. One thing led to the other and so my introduction to all these crafts was through artistry. I don’t think I would be in this profession as I told you earlier if I had the option of going to art history and fashion designing course I don’t think I would have chosen for the latter. It was not in my mind space. I could not understand as to why would anyone sit and make clothes. I mean not until it’s tied up with a lot of other stuff. 

    GJ: You’ve written a book on costumes and textiles of India. It is a lot of research and it shows years of diligent patience and findings. Can we expect more such definitive work from you?

    RK: I don’t think I have, I think someone else has to write it for me and they are being written I mean there are books on saris and handlooms and textile etc. This one I did because I was actually researching the costumes of textiles of Air India because they were the patrons of the best textiles and crafts of the country and it was a very interesting research to do. But if I am writing a book I will probably put in together after the collection. I am going to take a two month break and start writing now and that is going to be my journey in these areas. I’ve seen it we’ve done it but I don’t think the next generation is going to have that opportunity. So I think this is also something that has to be put down somewhere.

    GJ: Do you feel responsible about the fashion industry, the shape that it is going to take? As one of the pioneers do you feel responsible to guide this industry?

    RK: I think if all of us who’ve worked in the industry, in the crafts, those 30-40 years did lay a background and now the way it will go will have to go in an innovative way to give what the market what is wanting and demanding. But I think the core has been set, the book, our works, all of us who have worked in crafts, the books on the various crafts we have, the research is already in place, so this much can be done. But I definitely at some stage would want to archive my collections, much more for educational research for the future, for anybody who needs good reference that I would like to do. We are not good at museums in this country, we are not good in recording our heritage; we are actually very bad at it. We have got too much culture hanging around us but nobody sitting and recording. 

    GJ: You are the first generation entrepreneur. What advice would you like to give to the entrepreneurs who want to get into this industry? 

    RK: I basically think that most people are smart enough today to know that they should not just do it for instant name and fame which doesn’t work. It has to be an industry something that you feel strongly for and you have, you can’t become a doctor overnight or find the cure for cancer overnight, so any industry that you are in there is a lot of groundwork to do. You have to be willing to spend the hours and do the slogging that it takes to get there. 

    GJ: Having showcased your work in so many different countries around the world, which have been your favourite and why?

    RK: You know what ever I’ve showcased has gone as the museum type of collection not as the collection of garments but otherwise I’d say France.  We’ve been working there for 30 years. And is there something I think there is empathy in those colours and forms. Whatever I do it goes down very well in France and vice versa. There seems to be a thread there which is quite similar.

    GJ: Who were your icons whom you looked up to while growing up?

    RK: Pupul Jayakar and Kamala Devi. I couldn’t get over their energy and what they did for this country. 

    GJ: In terms of crisis and dilemma who do you turn to? Or what do you turn to?

    RK: My family basically, my parents. 

    GJ: One of your sons is a designer and the other one is making a name in cinema. How does that make you feel as a mother?

    RK: The one that is making a name in the cinema is doing such controversial movies. He is making out of thinking things and things which are very hard to do so there is a mixture of concern as well as lot of pride that someone is actually stepping out and that is not easy. It’s very hard actually. What he is doing is a lot harder than what the other is doing though his work calls for equal innovation and creativity. It is insane out there. Within a certain discipline they are doing great.

    GJ: You worked with your son and you designed the clothes for his movie. How was the experience for you?

    RK: I designed for the first film The Little Terrorist which was nominated in the Academy. He is very difficult person to work with. He will just not take any half measures; it’s a little crazy to go all the way to Kutch to make the costume designs for the movie. 

    GJ: What parenting advice would you want to give to our readers?

    RK: You have to let your kids grow and not provide too much shade. You have to give them space which may be very difficult for the parent.

    GJ: Do you miss having a daughter?

    RK: Of course, there is no question about it.

    GJ: How would you like to be remembered?

    RK: It would like to be remembered as somebody who came to this world and looked at some of the beautiful textiles and created some great designs.


  • Late Jyotsna Darda

    A towering figure courage, strength and love, Jyotsna Darda was a mother to many more people than just her children. As the Chairman of Lokmat Sakhi Manch, a forum for women, started under the aegis of the Lokmat newspaper group, she worked very hard for the upliftment of women in remote areas of Maharashtra and Goa. Today, thanks to her tireless work before her untimely death, Sakhi Manch has more than 100 centers in the two states. 

    Gunjan Jain: Sakhi Manch has provided an identity to the women who are its members. Tell us a little about the thought processes behind its establishment in 2000?

    Jyotsna Darda (JD): Crafting a social organization is not an easy job. As a child, I never dreamt or planned on doing anything like this. However, when I became part of the Darda family and, as a result, became more acquainted with the social environment, I thought that I must do something for women. I would hear the discussions between my father-in-law and my husband, and I felt the need to empower women. Moreover, I identified that the condition of women was very bad in our society. So, we started conducting small camps initially; we also started working toward bringing these women together. After speaking to the women who were interested in what we were doing, we were more aware of their pathetic condition. Most of these women said that they could not do what they wanted to do and so, we established Sakhi Manch with the idea of providing women with purpose and identity.

    GJ: Why do you think it is important for contemporary Indian women to have this sense of identity?

    JD: I believe that women are capable of doing anything and everything. That’s why I feel that women should be given their due respect and not looked down upon or discriminated against. Today, if a woman goes to work, she should be respected for the work she is doing. She should not feel threatened or should not have to deal with the any apprehension of being teased or misbehaved with. Women should be carefree; they should feel safe and secure. I feel that it is important for them to have their own identity. Moreover, women should be respected in their domestic spheres as well. At homes, women face the issue of disrespect. I found that in many houses, a woman is not given the importance she deserves. A mother, a wife, a sister, or a sister-in-law must get the amount of respect and importance that is due to her, that is due any human. Today, many people send their mothers to old age homes. Basically, I do not like this concept of sending parents to old age homes. Some years later, this cycle will continue, and these people will be sent to old age homes by their children. This is not a good thing; and I strongly feel that women should be allowed to attain their proper status in all spheres of life.

    GJ: You said that when you became a part of Darda family, you became socially aware of the environment in which women live, and that was when you decided to do something to empower them. Hailing from the privileged Darda family, how comfortable were you when dealing with suppressed women from the lower and middle classes?

    JD: The elders of the Darda family, like my father-in-law, believe that we should remain grounded and humble. We do not discriminate on basis of class, and that is why our newspaper is distributed to even the remotest villages of Maharashtra. In fact, when there is a marriage in our domestic help’s family or when someone in their family is sick, I personally go there and visit them. I have inherited this virtue from my parents as well; we believe that there is no rich or poor, and that we should help whoever is suffering. That is why and how we remain humble.

    GJ: Just like your newspaper has reached the remotest villages of Maharashtra, has Sakhi Manch also reached these villages? We know the platform was started in Nagpur, but when did you decide to expand to other cities and villages?

    JD: People think that big cities provide more avenues or opportunities, and that there is no scope in smaller towns or villages. When we began Sakhi Manch, we believed that the most talented people were in the villages, because not only were they willing to work with considerable dedication but they were also very brave and strong. So, we went to these villages, tried to convince them, and asked them to join the organization. Gradually, they started to realize the impact that Sakhi Manch was making, and they demanded that we extend our branches. They wanted to work with us. The more positive responses we got, the more we continued to grow.

    GJ: As Chairperson, you meet so many different women on a daily basis, how would you describe today’s quintessential woman?

    JD: Today, women want to grow and be independent; they are in a position where they are contributing to the growth of the country. I feel that contemporary Indian woman is very talented. They are doing exceptionally well, and I want for them to continue to develop. I find that women today are very powerful, and if they want to, they can do numerous things with a lot of positivity and achieve considerable success.

    GJ: You have been at the helm of Sakhi Manch since its inception, and you have led it to considerable success. What according to you are some of the most important qualities of a leader?

    JD: The most important quality in a leader is his/her ability to easily mix with people; to be able to understand their worth, their value, their attributes, and their feelings. When I meet the members of Sakhi Manch, I talk to them and sit with them and try to solve their problems. This quality of being able to communicate with fellow human beings is a pre-requisite. At Sakhi Manch, we try to make our members feel at home, so that they feel that this is their platform, their home. Additionally, a leader should be hard working, and should always want to help other people.

    GJ: It’s been a 13-year long journey since its inception in 2000. How difficult has it the journey been? Tell us a little about the struggle in the first couple of years of Sakhi Manch?

    JD: Initially, we had 600 members. Our plan was to expose the women to the outside world so as to help them realize their potential. There were other issues which we dealt with accordingly. We had the media, through which we advertised. We also met a number of people and went to different clubs and told them about the endeavour and purpose of Sakhi Manch. We decided on a nominal fee structure because the aim was to do serious social work, and not just run some charity. We charged a fee, but we also presented our members with gifts that were worth double the amount. In the first couple of years, the main problem was to convince women to join us; however, with time, we were able to overcome this hurdle. Later, the women themselves understood that what they were doing was in fact good work; we involved them in different fields like social activity, entertainment, education, etc. In time, when people started placing faith in us, we grew stronger and stronger.

    GJ: Sakhi Manch organizes several programs, workshops, and events, which are cultural, religious, and informative in nature. If you could share with us a little about the idea behind these events?

    JD: The idea behind these workshops is that the women should not fall behind in any field. At these events or programs or workshops, we provide them with information and knowledge about every field. The basic purpose is to train these women in all fields. Many of these women have now started their own businesses and are earning a living for themselves.

    GJ: How involved is Sakhi Manch in the social causes that you champion?

    JD: Every year, we ask our members to bring us saris that they want to give away. Most women bring saris wrapped neatly as presents, and we distribute these amongst the slum dwellers. In the case of education, we arrange computer training courses; for this purpose, we invest half the funds and the other half is invested by Sakhi Manch. We also try to inculcate good values in the people we work with, which I think is very necessary in today’s time. Additionally, we conduct free health check-ups etc.

    GJ: In the last 10 years, Sakhi Manch has achieved much success; what are your plans for the next five years?

    JD: We would like to continue working towards the development and empowerment of women. Also, we would like to carry on with our social work.

    GJ: You are intrinsically involved with every aspect of Sakhi Manch. Share with us a little about the importance of Sakhi Manch in your life?

    JD: Sakhi Manch has given a lot to me. Being associated with the members has changed my perception about everything. We basically live for ourselves, but it’s a great feeling to see the people that you have helped are happy with what they are doing. When I meet them and I see the smile on their faces, I feel very good. Also, I feel satisfied that I’ve done something for the women. Sakhi Manch has also given me considerable recognition, and now, wherever I go, even if I don’t know the people, they always recognize me.

    GJ: Sakhi Manch was founded under Lokmat Times; to what extent is it independent?

    JD: Sakhi Manch is not dependent on Lokmat. We have our own identity; all that we depend on them for is that our news is properly published. Otherwise, we’re absolutely independent in every aspect.

    GJ: You’ve mentioned that you arrange quality programs for Sakhi Manch, which we assume must be costly. Where does Sakhi Manch find sponsorships? How do you raise funds?

    JD: We have some funds of our own, and we are able to obtain some sponsorships. We conduct our programs with the help of these sponsorships. Companies like Whirlpool, TATA, and Videocon have funded us in the past.

    GJ: We know you write good lyrics and poetry and compose music; who or what would you attribute your artistic nature to?

    JD: I don’t know. May be it is inherent. I love reading; I love reading religious and spiritual texts.

    GJ: You are married to a famous Indian politician. Being a politician’s wife, what kind of responsibilities do you feel you need to shoulder?

    JD: Being a politician’s wife means having to shoulder many responsibilities. I need to participate in many activities and also be a perfect hostess to the guests visiting our place. Moreover, people perceive me as wielding political power, so they come to me to have their issues solved. At times, when the members of Sakhi Manch want any help with regard to medical care, I try to help them out. In case of admission of children, we try to help people as much as possible.

    GJ: You are part of the political circle and have been involved in politics in many ways. Have you even considered joining politics or becoming a politician?

    JD: I come from a political family, but I do not want to join politics. However, in my heart, I believe that good people should join politics. For me, though, politics is not the right place as I’m simply not suited for that job. I have to say that India’s contemporary political scenario is not very good at all.

    GJ: If you had three days to spend in any manner you wanted, without any social or familial commitments/responsibilities, how would you spend those three days?

    JD: I would take those three days off entirely for myself. I would travel, read, and listen to music.

    GJ: Speaking of music, and moreover since you write lyrics and compose music, what kind of music or genre of music do you like the most?

    JD: I like classical music, or some light music.

    GJ: If you had to name one historical figure who has inspired you, who would it be?

    JD: I want to be like Mrs. Indira Gandhi; she was so dynamic, capable of striking a balance between family and politics, and had such a good command over people.

    GJ: In a society where everyone expects the very best from you, what is your advice to women when it comes to handling all the varied roles that they are required to play: mother, sister, daughter, wife, homemaker, businesswomen, etc.?

    JD: One should be absolutely committed to one’s family. That, plus the qualities of devotion, commitment and sacrifice are important to excel in any field.

    GJ: You come from a long line of freedom fighters. In what ways has Gandhiji and his teachings enriched your life?

    JD: I was taught a lot of values and discipline in my childhood. During those days, I felt that the values were too strict, but today, I realize that they have helped me become the person I am, they have made me a better person. I taught my children the same values.

    Late Jyotsna Darda

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