Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Pradip Shah Recounts How HDFC Segued from Build-and-Sell to Pure Lending

 (I was delighted to get a comment from Pradip Shah on “HT Parekh: Conceptualising an Income-gearing Product in the 1950s When Incomes Were Limited ”. He was a part of the core team of ICICI employees who worked with HTP on the launch of HFDC. A brilliant Harvard alumnus who had joined ICICI in the mid-1970s at the invitation of HTP, he was one of the few who left ICICI to join HDFC once it was set up. So, it was a pleasure that Pradip responded to my blog by recounting some of his earliest memories of working with HTP in HDFC to set trends that others would follow. I am happy to share these on this platform. For it places in the public domain some archival information about the first institution for housing finance in India. And, as I have emphasised, memories of personal experiences are the best archives! Thank you, Pradip.)

Comment on Nita Mukherjee’s blog, Pradip Shah, Mumbai, August 22, 2022 

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with HT Parekh in setting up HDFC. I was instrumental in changing the concept of HDFC to make it a pure lending organisation. HT Parekh had wanted to create an organisation that would build homes and sell on instalments, following HUDCO where Keshub Mahindra (later HDFC vice-chairman), who endorsed the idea, had been chairman. Indeed, the proposal prepared by NC Singhal and me in mid-1977 and sent to Aga Khan and IFC (W) was based on that business model.

 HT Parekh with Pradip Shah at Washington Airport circa 1980, Courtesy Pradip Shah 

But I saw how building societies and savings and loan associations (S&Ls) worked, on my trip abroad in December 1977. The trip was a suggestion of HT Parekh, who spoke to the then head of Standard Chartered Bank, who arranged for me to visit Abbey National Building Society in Baker Street and stay at the Standard Chartered chummery in a London suburb (those were days of severely-restricted availability of foreign exchange). Using contacts, I was able to get appointments with some S&Ls in USA, a building society in Philippines (where there had been turmoil in money markets) and a building society in Singapore. Unfortunately, most of these organisations thought of my visit as an imposition; one US S&L head heard me for a minute then promptly escorted me out saying he did not have time to answer questions on how S&Ls functioned. But the few days I got to sit in the Abbey National branch and the interaction I had with a couple of people there made me realise that a scalable, sustainable housing finance organisation had to be a pure lending organisation, not one that would build and sell homes on instalment-payment basis. (Incidentally, ALL people I met appreciated my HDFC business card that you, Nita, designed and got printed!)

I came back and drafted the lending policies which were repeatedly not approved till we had a board meeting where I forcefully presented the lending-against-income and lending-against-alternative-security proposals. The alternative security (personal guarantees of respectable family members or friends; assignment of LIC policies, etc) overcame the objections of Suresh Shroff of Amarchand Mangaldas and YH Malegam who were advisers to HT Parekh, who rightly said that flats under construction offered no security. The practice of lending-against-income (and the instalment-income ratio) were copied by the industry that followed (imitation is the best form of flattery) as was our brochure (often word-for-word), loan-application form, alternative security idea and even the ‘annual rest’ (reducing the principal at the end of one year for all principal-repayments made monthly). Indeed, the annual rest practice, that HDFC started and the industry copied, had to be modified later to coincide with the accounting year-end. I had borrowed the annual rest idea from building societies to enhance returns to HDFC as HT Parekh was keen to lend at 10.5%, a below-market rate at that time.

Indeed, it was this lending policy that resulted in our loan for tea workers for which Mr Hirianniah (then head of technical at HDFC) and I visited the Tata Tea estate near Jorhat in February 1979.


Thursday, 18 August 2022

HT Parekh: Conceptualising an Income-gearing Product in the 1950s When Incomes Were Limited

 At the outset, let me explain the rationale for writing this piece — to place in the public domain some archival information and memories that may get lost in the mists of history. I don’t even know whether some of the documents referred to here, and to which I had access once upon a time, exist anymore—physically or as digitised versions.

On 22 October 1977, when Housing Development Finance Corporation was launched by the then finance minister of India HM Patel, at the Ball Room of Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, it was considered a ‘revolutionary’ step in the history of Indian finance.

To understand why the concept was so innovative, one has to understand the weltanschauung of the man who lobbied for it unfalteringly for nearly three decades before it saw the light of the day. One also has to understand the context of income-gearing. When jobs were so scarce and salaries so low, how could a product based on leveraging future incomes work?

HT Parekh articulated his concept of a housing finance company for the first time in February 1951 when he was employed with Harkisondass Lukhmidass, then an upcoming stockbroking firm in Bombay. On his return from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1936, HTP had joined this firm on a salary of Rs150/per month, much to the chagrin of his father, because the share market was considered a ‘sattaa bazaar’ and the term dalaal was a pejorative. In any case, a degree in economics did not hold great employment opportunities in India in the 1930s. At best, you could get into poorly-paid academics or, if you were lucky and well-connected, after 1935, you could get a job with the newly set up Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

Even LSE, established by Fabian socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb in 1895, had a difficult time getting students as well faculty because a degree in economics hardly led to good jobs. As AW Coats, writing about the history of LSE, said: “The leading British economic writers had rarely derived their inspiration or their preparatory training from elementary economics; the number of academic economists was small; professorships were few and poorly paid; and consequently talented men turned to other matters, refusing to embark upon a scholarly and scientific career in which bare subsistence is uncertain. It was, admittedly, ‘just possible to earn enough to live with extreme economy by combining together several different economic sources of income’…” (See:

It was only during the directorship of Sir William Beveridge –1919 to 1937 –that LSE was able to get distinguished faculty members as well as students – many from developing countries. (See: HTP was one such student from not a developing country but a then colony of British India.

HTP was at LSE up to 1936. He had gone to London basically to appear for the Indian Civil Service examinations but, having failed to get selected, he completed his degree in economics at LSE. The spirit of Fabian socialism that he imbibed during those two years was perhaps the basis of his humanism throughout his career which was associated with institutions of capitalism – the capital market, banking and finance.

For the current generation, who may not be familiar with the tenets of Fabian socialism, very briefly, its advocates believed that: 1) substantial State intervention would be necessary if ordinary people were to prosper; and 2) the Welfare State had a collective responsibility to its citizens for education, healthcare and nutrition, housing and employment, along with support for care of the sick and aged.

Immediately after his return from London, HTP taught for a few months at St Xavier’s College, Bombay. He did opt for a career in banking like his father and elder brother, both of whom were working with the Central Bank of India. For HTP, as he has mentioned in his autobiographic narrative Hira ne Patro (Letters to Hira, first published in Gujarati), AD Shroff was a role model. AD Shroff too had started working in the share market after returning from London with a degree in economics joining the firm Batlivala & Karani (See Sucheta Dalal, AD Shroff Titan of Finance and Free Enterprise).

So, on noticing an advertisement of Harkisondass Lukhmidass in the Times of India for ‘educated’ youngsters to work as brokers, HTP decided to apply. Sir Purshottamdas Thakoredas, whom HTP knew well, was an adviser to Harkissondas; with his reference and a degree in economics from LSE, HTP got the job. Soon, he became the ‘right-hand man’ of Harkisondass (Hakkubhai to most people in banking and financial circles of Bombay in the 1940s and 1950s) who used the articulation abilities of HTP to make presentations to the then governor of RBI.

Until then, Harkisondass Lukhmidass was not one of the firms recognised by RBI for trading in government securities. It was at HTP’s insistence and initiative, that Hakkubhai sought a meeting with Sir James Taylor, governor RBI in 1937 to make a presentation about their vision of the capital market – that it is an avenue for peoples’ savings that need to be invested in the development of the economy. ‘Presentations’ those days were all in the nature of discussions on ‘Notes’ or ‘Working Papers’; so the domain knowledge of the business as well as articulation skills mattered most. Harkisondass Lukhmidass not only began to get business from RBI but also established such rapport that Sir Taylor began to consult HTP and Harkisondass Lukhmidass on business and economic issues. The relationship continued after Sir Taylor’s death in 1943 with CD Deshmukh who succeeded him.

The first ‘Note’ on housing finance that HTP wrote in 1951 was one such presentation to the Reserve Bank of India. It was titled “A Housing Society for the Bombay State” (see India through the Eyes of a Visionary: Writings of HT Parekh; page 467). (See:

                                          Photo: Nihar Sagar

In this Note, HTP’s emphasis was on the financial aspects of the company – mainly on how the resources for lending would be raised. The capital market was then in a nascent stage and, since he was working with a broking firm, he must have observed that it would be extremely difficult to raise money from the public. After all, if in 1955, ICICI’s first issue of 150,000 shares had less than 2,000 applications – 1,928 to be exact – in 1951, the situation could not have been any better. Such was the state of the primary issues market then. (2nd Board Meeting of ICICI; Secretary’s Board Papers; 28 February 1955).

The two tenets of Fabian philosophy, viz., a concern for the common man and State intervention for welfare – were reflected in this Note. The first paragraph of that Note said: “In order to assist the small man in building residential property for himself and to assist the numerous cooperative housing societies which have come into existence in recent years and who require finance for housing, it would be advisable to promote an independent housing corporation, sponsored by the government...” Further it said: “The primary purpose shall be to advance, for residential housing of the small man, either directly or through cooperative societies...”

Salaries in the 1950s: Interesting Anecdotal Evidence

As mentioned earlier, HTP had joined Harkisondass Lukhmidass in 1936 on a salary of Rs150/ per month; and although I have no evidence for what it would have been by the 1950s, since annual increments those days were not even in ‘three figures’, it may have been just touching ‘four figures’.

Even by the mid-1950s, ICICI – the development bank that HTP would join in 1956 – offered salaries as low as Rs400/- per month to the professionals it recruited. The minutes of the 1st meeting of the board of directors of ICICI on 20 January 1955 recorded that Percival S Beale, the then general manager, “was authorised to engage the necessary staff of about eight to ten persons on a salary not exceeding Rs. 400/- per month.” But since Mr Beale came from the Bank of England and may not have been too familiar with the situation on the ground, he was authorised to do so only “in consultation with any one of the Bombay Directors of the Company.” So, as recorded in the minutes of the board meeting, the first recruitment advertisement of ICICI said: “We need urgently the services of one or preferably two persons having general industrial experience, e.g., in the field of Electricity, Chemicals, or Mechanical Engineering, who can act as the link between our financial examination of proposals and the full technical examination of them.” Among the engineers so recruited was Siddharth S Mehta who came from Tata Chemicals, Mithapur after having worked in government of India’s directorate general of trade & development (DGTD). Engineers formed the largest percentage of initial employees of ICICI and included Suresh Nadkarni, SS Betrabet and R Hirway.

HTP would join ICICI a year later, in March 1956, as the number 2 person in the organisation after Mr Beale. The minutes of the 11th board meeting of ICICI on 12 March 1956 recorded, “Mr HT Parekh had accepted the appointment as Deputy General Manager. It was resolved that Mr HT Parekh be appointed Deputy General Manager on an inclusive salary of Rs3500/-… from 29th March 1956.”

As a private sector institution, ICICI was considered a good paymaster those days. So salaries in other organisations could not have been better. In such a scenario, to develop a loan product that would be geared on the future incomes of the borrower and from which he could pay at least 20% each month was, indeed, ‘revolutionary’. He defined the product as one that would offer “long-term loans for ownership housing on a mortgage basis.... (and) enables people to own a house at the beginning of their business career by borrowing first and repaying the debt, out of their income, over a period of years, instead of being in a position to own one's house only at the end of a working career, as in India.” It was even more challenging because Indians attached a huge stigma to ‘mortgaging one’s house’ – one did that only under dire circumstances. But what gave comfort and confidence was the fact that the ‘small man’ in India was, by and large, regular in repayment of loans – perhaps because moneylenders charged usurious rates and the cost delinquency was very high – not just financially but socially as well.

HTP said at the launch of HFDC: “Better housing and living conditions for our people is a dream I have always nursed,” and he would lobby tirelessly to make a housing finance institution to see the light of day. If I recollect right, it was this concern for the ‘small man’ (which, I would l always change to ‘common man’ while editing his writings), that was reflected in the fact that among the projects that were sanctioned in the first year of HDFC’s operations was a housing loan project for tea garden workers.


Thursday, 4 August 2022

Memories as Archives

This article was triggered by a question I was asked recently about the two-volume collection of late HT Parekh’s writings published way back in 1995 when I was working with ICICI – then a development bank – The Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India. The volumes were published by ICICI and HDFC (Housing Development and Finance Corporation) on his first death anniversary to commemorate his contribution to the building of these two financial powerhouses in India.

Photograph: Nihar Sagar

Both these development-oriented institutions, bowing to the ‘needs of the hour’, have been converted to commercial banks by merging themselves into the banks they had set up. HDFC has announced the decision and conversion is still some time away.

But why am I writing this piece now about an event that happened almost three decades ago? The answer: to record my memories. It is my belief that faithfully recorded memories have archival relevance.

Many in India may remember HTP (as HT Parekh was known in professional and social circles) as the doyen of Industrial finance in India. But I was surprised to find that the fairly authoritative and the first book on the history of Indian business by an Indian economic historian Dr Dwijendra Tripathi – The Oxford History of Indian Business (published in 2004) – did not have a single reference to HT Parekh. HTP had played a seminal role in the growth of the financial infrastructure of the country for almost half a century (late-1940s to mid-1990s) – the capital and money market, financial institutions and banks – and important facets of the credit and monetary policies. How can one think of Indian business without finance?

Be that as it may, I was asked about the ‘background’ to the publication of the two volumes of HTP’s writings and how I went about collecting all the articles and text of his speeches spanning those decades. Well, it did not take me much time, as I had myself compiled the entire file containing his speeches and articles while he was still alive! Although my professional contact with him began in the early-1970s, I think I started putting the collection together some time in the late-1980s. By then, I had worked closely with him on editing and publishing ICICI: Story of a Development Bank 1955-1979 – after which he would ask me to edit all his writings.

Photograph: Dr Sanjeev Bothra

So, putting together the contemporary writings was not an issue; but I did do a lot of research for his earlier materials and started compiling the collection chronologically. Every time I added a piece to the file, he would give me one of his beatific smiles as he thought I was a bit crazy! I would tell him ‘who knows some day someone may want information on the capital market in India and your articles and speeches may provide valuable information to that researcher’. And he would indulge me!

Many, many years later, this indeed was the response of business historian Medha M Kudaisya, teaching at the National University of Singapore who was then researching for her book on the Bombay Plan and looking for references of that period. This is what she e-mailed me when I sent her the reference to these volumes: "Have managed to get hold of India in Transition through the Eyes of a Visionary! It’s a fantastic resource for the Bombay Plan. It was not available so could not buy it but have got it from the Australian Nat(ional) University on inter-library loan. Congratulations on such good volumes!"

As a social historian, I have always believed that the briefest documents, or even personal letters, or photographs, when contextualised, contain a lot of ‘incidental’ information about the times lived in, that may be of use to future researchers. When I was in the corporate sector, I would argue for the need for archives and plead with colleagues to preserve documents and photographs – physically those days, as technology for converting to digital documents or images was not available then.

So, when editorial work on the commemoration volumes started, it was a fairly easy task – I did not have to go far looking for the content. Though the challenge was on how to structure the sections, since HTP was so articulate and wrote on so many subjects! We classified the articles into eight sections – four in each volume of the book. Volume-1 included: capital market, development banking, credit policy, regional cooperation. Volume-2 covered: industry, economic policy, housing and general & miscellaneous.

Photograph: Nihar Sagar

HTP used every opportunity — be it a letter to the editor or a book review or, indeed, a speech at a public function — to make a point, to persuade and to provide intelligent and well-considered commentary on the subject. Little did we realise that there were 300 pieces, written over the period 1940s to 1990s, in English (he also wrote fairly extensively in Gujarati). The challenge was to contextualise every piece – whether it was a speech, an article or just thoughts he had penned that we found among his personal papers. Even more challenging was to date all the pieces. Fortunately, I was able to do this for almost 90% of the writings! When viewed retrospectively, these provide a peek into the times when debates and discussions formed the bedrock of public policy.

As I wrote in the Preface to the volumes (signed by the then chairmen of ICICI and HDFC), "HT Parekh himself would never have consented to this enterprise during his own lifetime. He was too modest and self effacing a person to believe that it would be of any value to present and future generations. We have thought otherwise... We debated, carefully, the merits of making a selection of his most important pieces rather than publishing nearly all his available works. We arrived at the conclusion that, for several important reasons, it would be preferable to adopt the latter course as it would place his writings in a historical perspective, indicate the progress of his own thinking on the subjects he cared about and, most importantly, demonstrate the persistence of his views over a long period of time. Not to publish the whole would have risked the imposition of the implicit bias of the editors and would have severely detracted from the chronology of thought that would be of importance to anyone interested in the economic and financial history of the period." 

Dr IG Patel wrote in the Foreword to  the volumes, "the collection brings home the fact that HTP was a man of considerable intellectual and analytical ability which he employed for arriving at his prescriptions and agenda for public or private action. If he was a karma-yogi in every sense of the word, his activities were rooted in gyana (study, analysis and judgement) as well as bhakti (devotion and compassion) — all three making a rare and very potent amalgam."

Although today we have far better developed financial infrastructure in the country, researchers and business historians will find in the collection invaluable information about the evolution of many institutions the foundations for which HTP had laid.


Friday, 6 September 2019

ICICI Story-2: Conceptualising the Theme Spreads

In this article, I discuss one of the thematic design spreads on which we spent a lot of time. Some of the discussions I remember vividly, even after four decades (and withering of the grey cells of someone in her eighth decade of life!).

Selection of the visuals – photographs as well as the tantric art images – for each chapter was as creatively challenging for all the creative professionals concerned; and for me it was a fantastic learning experience. Each of the three persons involved in the implementation of the design concept – Yeshwant Choudhary, Mitter Bedi and Vilas Bhende – was a master of his own art. All of them were years senior to me, professionally as well as chronologically. The fact that they had so much respect for each other made the discussions, the arguments, the banter, even their acerbic comments for each other’s views, so much fun – memories that I treasure to this day.

Each one of them made critical comments and gave suggestions for the evolution of the thematic spread– sometimes leading to a complete abandoning of the original plan. But there was no heartburn, no ego hassles and, most important, no financial disputes about who would bear the costs of what was scrapped! It was a team that anyone would die to work with! Wonder why they took a novice like me under their wing. Although they took my suggestions seriously, sometimes I wondered whether they were just indulging me! Whatever be their reasons, for me, it was a blessing to cut my teeth into the world of book design with those masters.

Each composition of the book’s thematic pages photographs was nothing less than a piece of installation art. The Nanas’ Chowk (Bombay) studio of Vilas became our adda for the eight weeks or so that we took to complete the 10 theme photographs. The actual photography may have taken less than 10 days but collecting all the props, getting the models and setting up the composition took much longer.

For those who use today’s digital tools: software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud (specifically Photoshop) or the more recently introduced series of graphic design software developed by Serif (Affinity Photo) – it would be difficult to even imagine how these spreads were created without access to such tools. Each bit was manually crafted that required immense skills of making cut-outs, masking and superimposing, know-how of photography and dark-room techniques, and eye for detail for faithful reproduction in print. The entire text was photo-typeset and manual artworks were created for the entire document. Something that takes just a few clicks now would require hours or even days of human labour.

One of the chapters in the book was titled “ICICI and the Planning Era”. A head, or the brain, was the faculty to be depicted. That was the easy decision; what was challenging was the composition of the thematic page. We had to get the cast of a head made from plaster of Paris. Vilas and Yeshwant were perfectionists and rejected at least six or seven casts before they were satisfied!

I remember Vilas and Yeshwant discussing the hand that should be shown as working on the circuitry shown inside the head – it had to be a male hand; of someone in his 30s; the nails had to be unevenly cut – Vilas went to the extent of having just the right amount of dirt in the nails to convey that it was genuinely a worker’s hand! And he shot at least a dozen photos to finally select the one which showed the right amount of pressure of the finger on the screwdriver!

Today, in times of microchips, the printed circuit board may appear primitive, as would probably the photograph with women working on calculators. But THAT was the state of electronics industry in India in the late-1970s; it was difficult to even get permissions to shoot photographs of a mainframe computer because only a handful of industries had them.

For me, the most enjoyable and educative hours were those when Yeshwant went through great lengths to explain to me why he had chosen the ‘tantric’ image of the sun for that page and the significance of the number 28. He told me that 28, in Indian mythology, had a special significance. It is considered the perfect number and denotes wealth. Also, he used that number with the image of the sun because the rotation time of the surface of the sun at its equator as viewed from Earth is about 28 days.

The numerals had to be written in Devnagari script, of course, because we were writing about an Indian institution. I must add that, after hours of heated discussions with him, the only change that I could convince him to make was in the drawing of the Man inside that image of the sun. He introduced moustache; originally, the drawing had only the lines on the forehead which could be interpreted as a Brahmanical symbol. My weltanchaung did not permit me to accept that ‘intellect’ and ‘planning’ were the prerogative of the Brahmins!

Those who would like to access the entire document, here is the link 

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Story of How the "Story of a Development Bank" Was Designed

Forty long years after this “book” was published, and almost two decades since the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), whose silver jubilee it sought to commemorate, lost its identity, it is time to put the book out in the public domain as an archival document. Apart from the graphic design of the book, what also needs to be archived, as a case-study perhaps, is the entire experience of creating a commemorative volume at a time when imaging and printing technology were rudimentary in India; simple things like getting the right colour and conveying the right emotion through visuals was an achievement! Even graphic literacy was in its infancy in the country and there were few in the corporate world at that time who understood subliminal messaging.

The Assignment
The year was 1978. I had not even completed three years of employment with ICICI, then a development bank. But, in that brief period, I had inspired a feeling of respect with the then top echelons of the organisation, perhaps because of my background of research in development administration and of what they perceived as my writing skills. I was still too ‘wet behind the ears’ to understand my abilities and too steeped in the upbringing of self-effacing professionalism, to appreciate the reason for that respect. For a comparative novice in the hierarchical corporate world, and a very junior employee, it was quite an enviable achievement.

HT Parekh, who had just retired as the Chairman of ICICI, after having launched HDFC (Housing Development Finance Corporation) in 1977, undertook to write the history of ICICI as its silver jubilee commemoration volume. He specifically asked for my services as a research and editorial assistant. And Siddharth Mehta, the then Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) of ICICI entrusted to me the task of ‘publishing’ the book. In his signature way, he told me: “Remember, I want a world-class book. And the deadline is sacrosanct.” There was no ‘briefing’ about design, agency, size, paper, costs, etc.

Thus commenced the odyssey resulting in this publication – I would have hardly called it a book. The text was a longish personal memoir by HT Parekh (HTP, as he was known in the haloed world of banking & finance as well as government and corporate circles). In that genre, it had nuggets of very valuable information – in fact, invaluable for a business historian of that period. But the manuscript was all of about 50 pages! HTP did not want a data-heavy book; its target audience comprised international bankers, corporate executives and Indian policy-makers – who would lap up every word that HTP wrote – such was his standing in those circles. So the author too did not expect a typical coffee-table tome that would be looked at but not read. But he did want gloss and colour. His one sentence brief to me was: “I want a book that’s good looking – one which will be noticed all over the world.”

The challenge was terrific and the opportunity once-in-a-lifetime one. Of course, I had to work with the best designer available in Bombay then – one who would be able to translate my concept into a work of art. So I turned to Yeshwant Chaudhary with whom I had just finished working on the corporate identity of HDFC. My instinct, and the experience of designing the HDFC symbol and logo, told me that Yeshwant Chaudhary would be able to weave together the symbolism of Indian tantric art with the industrial photography of Mitter Bedi blended with the thematic photography of Vilas Bhende and the philosophy of development that HTP and ICICI espoused.

The Concept
In the 1970s, communicators in India were animated about Marshall Macluhan’s book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, in which he had coined the famous phrase “medium is the message.” I discussed with Yeshwant Chaudhary if a similar visual phraseology could be developed to communicate ‘Industry – The Extension of Man’. It would convey that ICICI was into assisting Indian industry; industry was working toward the total development of man; it was in a way extension of human faculties – the five senses. If we could develop that graphic phraseology, it would add a lot of gravitas to ‘verbal content’ of the book – where the book, as the medium, would also deliver the message of total development of humankind through industrialisation.

The concept charged up Yeshwant Chaudhary such that we spent nearly three months debating various aspects of this phraseology – even as HTP and Siddharth Mehta were getting impatient to “see” the presentation of the concept. They had to approve it before I could go ahead and commit the financial resources and work out a detailed implementation plan – within the deadline! We presented to them just the three theme pages; and we had expected that we would have to spend at least an hour explaining the why and the wherefore of it. We came out beaming, in three minutes flat! The visuals were powerful enough. No ‘wordy’ explanations were needed.

These were the three finally printed spreads.

Three images of the cover and the two theme pages

For readers who may like to access the entire document, here is the link 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Archived Letters: A Treasure Trove for Biographies

I have grappled with the acute shortage of source materials while writing biographies, particularly of people from the latter half of the 20th century, because telecommunications technology led to the demise of letter writing. And also because most Indian families do not preserve letters, let alone archive them. Letters are such a rich resource for historians and biographers not only because they provide evidence for events in the narrative of the life one is reconstructing but also because they, often, give you a glimpse of the social and political issues of those times. The book by Sheela Reddy is evidence, if ever one were needed, of how rich and credible the narrative can be, if such resources were available.

The book is based on a bunch of private letters preserved by Padmaja and Leilamani (spelt Leelamani, by some) Naidu, daughters of Sarojini Naidu, who was a close family friend of Ruttie Petit’s father (a fabulously rich baronet, Sir Dinshaw Petit, a prominent Parsi mill-owner of Bombay), and, later, Ruttie’s role model and confidante. Ruttie was a prolific letter writer; Sarojini and her daughters were the recipients. Apparently, Sheela stumbled upon them in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Padmaja Naidu “had the foresight and imagination to collect and preserve her family’s vast and lively correspondence... and put it at the disposal of the curious in the NMML archives.” It was pure fortuitousness that, while doing further research, Sheela found a temple trustee in Hyderabad (where the Naidu family lived) who helped her “locate Padmaja Naidu’s forgotten papers and photographs gathered in a cloth bundle and locked up in a dusty cupboard inside a dharmashala in a sabji mandi.”

The bundles contained not only letters about the Jinnah couple written by the members of the Naidu family to each other, but also several letters written by Ruttie to Sarojini Padmaja and Leilamani. She was very close to the Naidu family who, in later years, appear to be her only source of emotional support.  Sarojini Naidu also knew and greatly admired Jinnah; so, in some of her letters to her daughters, she does have some observations on what could have been his thoughts and motivations for some of his personal as well as political decisions.

What the author has done remarkably well is interpreting the content of the letters bringing to life the solitary, misunderstood Jinnah and the lonely, wistful Ruttie, weaving deftly the social and political ethos and issues of the times without losing focus on the main narrative. It would have been so easy to stray into a description, or even analysis, of the tumultuous events, the ferment of ideologies and ideas, and the number of important and interesting people that criss-crossed the lives of this star-crossed couple.

However, it is not just access to the resources that makes her book unputdownable; it is the author’s intensive and meticulous research, reflected in the nearly 50 pages of notes (of the 421-page book) that are as interesting and engaging as the story of the ‘marriage that shook India’. However, as a researcher and social historian, I would have preferred the citations and references as endnotes with cross-references in the main text. But perhaps because of her long experience as a journalist, the author did not want to ‘clutter’ the narrative with reference numbers. I also missed an index.

Since I have reviewed the book for Moneylife,  I will not go into the subject matter of the book. Here, I will share some of my views as a social historian and biographer on the use of archived letters. 

With such a treasure trove of resources, I wonder why the author/publisher did not use the letters as images. These would have not only added to the design dimension of the book but perhaps brought the characters to life more effectively. As an example, reproduced below is the last letter that Ruttie wrote to Jinnah. It is as poignant a missive as a heartbroken 28-year-old could have written in the second decade of the past century. She wrote it on 5 October 1928, on board SS Rajputana on which she travelled to India after she had been nursed back to life in Paris by Jinnah. Yet, they decided that they would go their separate ways. 

She writes, “When one has been as near to reality – (which after all is death) as I have been dearest, one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments and all the rest becomes a half veiled mist of unrealities. Try and remember me beloved as the flower you picked and not the flower you tread (sic) upon. I have suffered much because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to (sic) the measure of my love... had I loved you a little less, I might have remained with you. Only after one has created a very beautiful blossom, one does not drag it through the mire. The higher you set your ideal, the lower it falls... I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved. I only beseech you that our tragedy which began with love should also end with it. Darling, good night and goodbye.
PS. I had written to you from Paris with the intent of posting the letter here but felt that I’d rather write to you afresh from the fullness of my heart. R.”

Sheela has quoted the letter as text. Notice the difference when you see it as an image in her handwriting – the tenderness that it oozes.


There is no shortage of drama to the story of this May & December marriage, especially when the protagonists are MA Jinnah and Ruttie Petit. Twenty-four years older to her and a friend of her father, Jinnah was a leading Muslim barrister in Bombay and, by then, already a powerful politician. The only daughter of Sir Petit, Ruttie was a girl of 16 when they fell in love, so pretty, vivacious and fashionable that she was known as the ‘flower of Bombay’.

Sheela gives a glimpse of how the politics of the times as well as his personal life gradually transformed Jinnah from being a liberal Muslim (and a ham-eating, cigar smoking, alcohol-drinking to boot, one who sent his sister to a missionary school, where she was the first Muslim girl to be admitted), to a more staunch and conservative one.

Perhaps the romance, and the marriage, was doomed because of the huge age difference between them. She was so vivacious, full of energy to explore and live life to the fullest and he was so seriously involved in the politics of the times. She truly wanted to be by his side and participate to the fullest in his political journey– something that was not viewed kindly by the Muslim community that gradually became Jinnah’s main constituency as the Home Rule Movement and then the Indian National Congress changed gears after Gandhi’s emergence on the Indian political scene. Unused to playing second fiddle, Jinnah became more and more involved in strategising with the Muslims, to the exclusion of Ruttie. So in this triangular love story, she lost out to her competitor – politics and Jinnah’s overarching ambition. Sheela says that Jinnah “drove her mad with his inhuman lack of all emotion, or so it seemed, and his punctilious sense of duty, as if she was no more to him than a duty he must discharge... (she got) the sinking feeling that she was being erased as an individual” (p282). Within a few years, their meteor of love had extinguished itself.

Ruttie died on 20 February 1929, her 29th birthday, alone in a house where she stayed after moving out from the Jinnah residence, consuming an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving her daughter, Dina, and her inconsolable husband, who never married again.

Sheela ends her book with a sentence that makes one’s heart go out to Jinnah, since she has so poignantly narrated the story of his failed love. She says: “The effects of what he had done only sunk in later. Jinnah wept when he saw the refugees in the country he had just created almost single-handedly. But the tears were less for the refugees that for what he had just done – destroyed yet again that which he loved the most.”

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Capturing Memories of a Family Business

As a student of social history, I have for long been advocating the need for documentation and archiving, especially in the context of Indian businesses which have witnessed a complete transformation in their environment.

With nearly half a century of research experience, I am acutely aware of the paucity of archival materials that can be used as evidence for writing biographies and corporate histories. Hence, I take every opportunity to persuade business organisations, as well as NGOs, to preserve documents that would authenticate future historical writing.

Often, organisations and people unthinkingly discard correspondence, files and even photographs. This has become more rampant now as physical space (real estate) has become more expensive or because no one has the time to sift through and organise old stuff. History is not a priority; future planning is. Also, with changes in technology for communications having undergone a metamorphosis, much of the exchange of information and views is no longer by way of letters; it is being done on the telephone or on emails – media that can be easily obliterated. This aspect of technology had affected ‘collective memory’ negatively. And people have, so far, not started using digital technology as extensively as they should (or could), to preserve the past.

Hence, when I got an opportunity, in 2007, to initiate the process of creating oral history records for a family business, I took up the project eagerly – as much out of my belief in the need for building up such resources as for the demonstrative effect it might have on other corporates.

Forbes Marshall was a 61-year-old business, in 2007, and offered ‘ideal material’ for creation of oral history records (OHRs). The company began with trading, ventured into import-substitution manufacturing and now operates at the frontiers of technology. Fortunately, the promoters as well as many members of the old team were still available for being interviewed and their memories were not covered by the mists of time.

What Is an OHR
For those who may not be familiar, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally comprises a well-prepared interviewer questioning the selected person and recording the exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarised, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatisation or other form of public presentation. An OHR does not include random taping, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.

The project commenced in October 2008. Over the next two years, I did 53 interviews; running into 2,687 minutes (nearly 45 hours) of audio recordings, that take up some 1,241MB of digital storage space. These were submitted on seven CDROMs along with printed copies of the transcripts as well as the soft copies (as Word files which were converted into pdf documents) for ease of access. These run into nearly 700 pages; organised chronologically by the date of the interview.

At the stage that I undertook this project, the technology for recording, transcribing, and even organising the ‘data’ with keywords and indexing it into searchable databases, was not what it is today. So the transcriptions were done manually! Today, software is available to do it all.

Anticipating the difficulty that future users might face in going through such voluminous data, at the beginning of each transcript, I provided keywords and concepts that could be searched on the Word/pdf files. I also gave the cross-reference details of the duration of audio recording and the transcript on each page of the printed document. This was to facilitate the user to go to the exact minute, or second, of the recorded interview for, say, an audio clip for a voice-over in a film, rather than having to listen to the entire recording. Users working towards creating publishable documents and wanting to pick up an entire quote from the ORH would not need to word-process from the recording; these could be just copy-pasted.

Objective of the Project
My concept note for the project mentioned:The exercise could result in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences, as the case may require or permit.”

How I Went about It
I began with recording the memories of some of the oldest ‘associates’ of FM – promoters, directors, employees, consultants, bankers, technologists, etc, to record their memories of the growth/development of the company from its earliest times. This involved the following activities:
  • Identifying the persons to be interviewed and preparing their bio-sketch from HR records; this enabled me to contextualise the OHR and obtain focused information.
  • Doing the audio-recorded interviews – sometimes multiple -- depending on the time available from the person and the ‘information-richness’ of the interviewee.
  • Transcribing the recordings, extracting the knowledge content of the interview, and preparing a detailed index for each interview.
  • Extracting embedded knowledge.
  • Creating a separate database /catalogue of these tapes/CDs with detailed content index – which could be managed by the company’s library.
My responsibility ended with the penultimate point above. Since then, FM has created another series of OHRs which have also been used for writing the history of the company. The history has now been published as a book titled: A Different Business: The Forbes Marshall Story.

That the project achieved its objective – of “result(ing) in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences” – is amply visible in the many, many quotes from the OHRs in the book.