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.