To be a billionaire, one needs to be endowed with widely-acclaimed and extraordinary entrepreneurial skills. But a billionaire like Krishna Kumar Birla is not only raved about because he is a member of one of India’s leading business families, or because of the numerous industries he has successfully established, but also for his prolific involvement in the complex world of politics, in the welfare of society in general and in the advancement of education as well as culture. There are innumerable activities and organisations that can be associated with the man himself, such as the Hindustan Times, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, K. K. Birla Foundation and so on.
In a transparent account of different spheres and periods of his life, K. K. Birla provides a glimpse of his personal and professional life and of Indian politics and history, the way he saw them shape. As Sonia Gandhi, in her Foreword to the book, aptly points out: ‘Very few people have the range of experience that Dr Birla has. His life encompasses many eras and many areas. There cannot be many industrialists who can write about the growth of Indian business through the 20th century. And there cannot be many other people with as great an acquaintance and friendship with the most important figures of post-Independence India. In that sense, he has truly been a witness to history.’
The Birlas are not only industrialists; they have also been playing the role of nation-builders for their country. This is especially true of K. K. Birla who is the son of the revered Ghanshyam Das Birla. Krishna Kumar has represented the Congress Party for three terms at the Rajya Sabha and has been involved in politics since an early age, due to his father’s great admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and relations with other top leaders of the pre-Independence era.
He is the chairman of the Zuari-Chambal Group of Companies (comprising of over 40 companies) but his book is far from the story of how he earned enviable successes in the corporate world despite the fact that he had inherited very little from his father in terms of wealth. His real inheritance was the passion for public life, for eminent personalities and for the general good of his countrymen.
A major portion of the book is dedicated to his close association and interaction with Indira Gandhi. Even though Birla comes across as a great admirer of hers as a politician and as a person, he does not hesitate to offer criticism where required: ‘Had Indira-ji withdrawn the emergency order after, say three months or so, and gone for general elections, she would have won the elections hands down. Indira-ji would have gone down in history as a lady of strong personality and the best prime minister India ever had.’
Birla’s tone is formal and analysis of people as well as situations, objective. The language is simple to understand. He does not comment much on himself and leaves the readers to draw conclusions themselves. He comes across as religious, loyal, hardworking and along with this, profoundly interested in world affairs and philanthropy. He also shows immense respect for his father as well as other members of the Birla family.
Brushes with History has been divided into K. K. Birla’s early years, his memories of Indira Gandhi, his later life, glimpses of some other areas of his life and lastly, his correspondence with various important people he was close to. The book should have been concise to make it more engaging for general readers. At some places, thoughts or events have been repeated, which could have been edited. However, through the book one discovers interesting aspects of the lives of various politicians such as the Gandhis, Jayaprakash, Morarji, Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and so on. — AYESHA HODA