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.