Follow Us:

The rarefied world of Calcutta’s sahib logs

Aswini K Ray |

I got to know the author when I was doing a post-graduate course in political science in Calcutta University. He was also studying with me but I could see his heart was not in it. Apparently, he had been keen to go to Oxford to do a tripos in modern history and to try to become a barrister — all in pursuit of a youthful ideal which was to join public life. The aim was to return to India as a barrister and teach in a college while trying to build up an advocate’s practice, both professions permitting this participation.

To me all this seemed like a pipedream which many young men and women, carried away by the impassioned zeal of the leaders of our freedom struggle, go through at this stage in life. Before long, it often fizzles out.

Unfortunately, for Prafull, his father had added a dampener in retrospect, a blessing in disguise. He had told him that the family finances could not be stretched to cover a foreign education. Deeply disappointed, Prafull left college thereafter, to look for a job without taking a post-graduate degree. In the late 50s his prospects were not very bright. An ordinary graduate only could hope to aspire for Rs.250 a month.

But, as I later heard, a chance introduction had catapulted him to a fancy job in a prestigious British company, one of the oldest and largest tea-broking firms in the world where the pay and perks were probably the highest in India. I felt happy for him and believed that from now on he would be lost in the rarefied world of Calcutta’s sahib logs.

But, Fly Me to the Moon has proved me wrong. I am not complaining though. It is a story of a continuous and a dogged pursuit of a youthful dream. The first move was leaving the British firm after 13 glorious years to join an Indian family-owned agency in quest of financial independence. He believed such a company was more likely to award a business opportunity to an able employee for exceptional service unlike a British agency which had its fixed rules and hierarchies. It was remarkable foresight for a young man of his age.

Those well-wishers who had seen him grow up in the company had looked askance at this unprovoked move from the blue-blooded British company in 1971 to a family dominated concern, however large and influential believing him to be jeopardising his future. Such was the unspoken snobbery of the times!

But opportunity came when his new employers were faced with the problem of reviving a sick cigarette company in the backdrop of Naxal violence. When the turnaround was achieved, the new employers lived up to their promise of the “insurance” that he had asked for when taking up his assignment, namely, that they enable him to establish his own tea-broking company. Thus, “Contemporary” was established, with top-class professionals, and he felt it was time he could leave it to proxy management and comfortably relocate to Delhi and later Gujarat where the political opportunities lay.

The author’s preoccupation with financial security probably stemmed from the family stories of the problems suffered by his paternal grandfather, I understand, he was a nationalist to the core, at an open session of the Congress Party in Ahmedabad in 1915, who along with Sardar Patel had been a joint Secretary. But it seems, because of family responsibilities, he had been compelled to take up the post of a Divan to the Maharaja of Morbi which vicariously meant serving British rules, something that was anathema to him.

Securing financial independence was one thing, but sustaining it was a different proposition. Management by proxy, he was discovering, does not always turn out the way it is intended to. “My troubles with my new company seemed to be never ending”, he lamented. But when, finally a conspiracy in the Cochin branch erupts, with all senior executives simultaneously submitting their resignations with an idea of derailing the company, he shows that he can act fast and ruthlessly.

I understand that Narendra Modi had once said of Goradia that while he was very valuable for his “thinking outputs”, he may not be particularly effective in politics. Possibly Modi meant that he felt Goradia lacked the instinctive cut and thrust of dealing with enemies in politics. But in Contemporary Tea when the battle lines were drawn, Goradia demonstrated that he was able to make short shrift of his detractors.

The shift to Delhi, at age 45, was a leap in the dark, at least so I thought. there was no political base and no godfather either in Delhi or his home state Gujarat to steer him through. The political world had looked askance at this outsider. The only politicians he knew were those he had met when they visited Calcutta and his only experience in the line was social service in drought relief camps in Gujarat. It must have been a traumatic experience for his family: His daughters in mid-school, as also his writer wife, were quite shaken by the move. Sixteen years later he was in Parliament.

The tale in this book travels from princely India of Morbi Maharaja in Gujarat to post World War II Calcutta where American GIs roamed the streets and the author as a seven-year-old gaped in wonder “at these great big hulking soldiers, never having seen so many black and white men together before”, moving on to 10 August 1947 and Independence which along with the macabre spectre of Partition, raising questions about “What was there to celebrate when my country was being partitioned?”

The book goes on to chronicle the sybaritic world of the sahib logs of Calcutta basking in the warm glow of an imperial hangover. Life was very pleasurable for the young executive with an office in Clive Street and a swish company flat in Ballygunge. Weekends were spent in clubs which flourished in lofty rooms with high ceilings and echoing corridors with soft-footed servants flourishing wooden trays. At the bar a stiff Abadar poured out Chota Pegs as an occasional koi hai rent the air! “Life could be a lot of fun for the tea company bachelors in the Calcutta of those days”. But with the perks came the obligations and admonition — “if you drew an officer’s salary, you could not live like a babu”!

The tale moves to the political bedlam of Delhi and Gujarat of the 80s and beyond. The assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the Silk riots of Delhi dwell on the change in political firmament of Gujarat. Narendra Modi’s star was in ascendance and the author had many opportunities for close interaction. In post-Godhra Gujarat, he rose to become Modi’s chief defender in the electronic media.

What also makes the book exceptionally interesting is the new question the author is raising as to who actually demolished the Babari Masjid. He was present in Ayodhya on that 6 December 1992 and was witness to the fall of the domes and the almost instant dismissal of the BJP government of UP. But sixty hours later, all traces of the Babari edifice had been cleared. In place was a makeshift temple to Ram Lalla. The question must remain: What happened to the massive walls of the masjid and the debris? A question nobody seems to ask!

The book is a poignant story of a struggle to climb what British Prime Minister Disraeli called “the greasy pole” of public life. Written with wit and elan, the fascinating story is so told that many others thus inclined may know better how to negotiate the choppy waters of public life.

The reviewer is former professor of political science, jawaharlal nehru university