Sohrab Pirojsha Godrej







An employer’s relationship with an employee, who also happens to be a friend, isn’t always a comfortable one. But to my friend/employer Sohrab Godrej’s credit, I have to admit that he carried it off with characteristic grace. In fact, when I first joined Godrej in 1954, he was just my employer. After I left in 1961, we became friends and it was largely in this capacity that I rejoined Godrej in 1992 with the specific purpose of chronicling Godrej: A Hundred Years.

I had always known Sohrab to be a hard taskmaster. But this posed no problem for me, for in my very first job I had to work with an even harder taskmaster, an even stricter perfectionist (if such a thing were possible), Sir Rustom Masani. I learned my early lessons the hard way. Once, when I wasn’t sure of the answer to a question put to me by Masani, I began airily: "I think, Sir ?" when, brusquely, he cut me short: "You aren’t paid to think. Find out and get back to me." From Masani I learned the importance of giving the utmost attention to the minutest details, to think before opening my mouth and to be exact and precise after opening it, tuning my thought processes to his demands. I also learned the secret of keeping him in good humour ?always anticipating (by closely studying him) what he would ask for before he actually asked for it, always to be on full alert and quick in grasp. So when I rejoined Godrej in 1992, Sohrab was pleasantly surprised to find in me a kindred spirit, a fact which he often generously acknowledged.

Sohrab was a complex man. His striving for perfection, his meticulousness in whatever he did, was the most distinctive aspect of his personality. It was also the most punishing, being responsible for the many despairs of his chequered causes-inspired life and its few, very few, but tremendous triumphs. His restless striving took its toll of his ailing, aging body right to the very end. The circumstances of his death ?his insistence on visiting the Millennium Dome in London immediately after a long, tiring 14-hour flight that would have exhausted a man half his age, then again his fortitude in climbing three storeys to visit the new Godrej office in London, provide a sad, sad recall, a reach that almost invariably exceeded the grasp.

You may well ask what had Sohrab Godrej to show by way of manufacture, by way of justification for the very name he bore? Nothing, by way of manufacture. How then did he become Chairman of an industry, several industries? Well, he was, as he himself often stated, an industrialist in spite of himself. His real interests lay elsewhere: the Foreign Service, Choreography, Press Correspondent, even Secretary to Pandit Nehru, whom he greatly admired. It was his youngest brother Naval’s generosity of spirit, after father Pirojsha’s death, combined with innate good sense, that led to Sohrab becoming Chairman. Even so, he succeeded in carving a niche for himself in the Company: he promoted advertising and marketing activities, public relations and customer services and, in keeping with his forebears?commitment to social betterment, worker welfare.

Naval, in making him Chairman, must have realised the potential gain to Godrej of Sohrab’s wide and diverse contacts ?his friendship with Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv, almost each one of the country’s successive prime ministers, and several bureaucrats in responsible positions. He was on friendly terms with presidents, prime ministers, chancellors of France, Germany, Great Britain and several other countries. The various causes Sohrab espoused, from family planning to preservation of the country’s heritage, had made him a highly respected figure in India and in several other countries.

It was amazing the way Chairmanship transformed Sohrab. He performed his duties conscientiously and with a certain élan. He regularly visited the huge plants at Pirojshanagar, one plant at a time, went scrupulously through performance reports, made it a point to attend all Staff Club meetings so as to get to know its members, kept regular contacts with Presidents, Vice-Presidents and CEOs of the various Divisions. He had full confidence in his Managing Directors, all family members ?Jamshyd, Adi, Nadir and Vijay Crishna ?so he never interfered with their work and, over time, won their confidence as well.

Even before being appointed Chairman, Sohrab had to confront the unequal, unfair competition from the multinational giant, Hindustan Lever, which had made hay under British patronage. To be able to fight effectively, he researched the background of multinational operations, particularly in Africa and other parts of the world. He, along with Naval Tata of TOMCO, successfully fought the cause of the many struggling Indian soapmakers. The Indian Soap & Toiletries Makers Association, founded at their instance, gave their fight purpose and direction.

Above all, as Chairman of a reputed Company, Sohrab realised he was in a far better position to pursue causes dear to him and to muster the necessary support from the government as well as the public than he would have ever been able to do in his individual capacity.

Top priority among these causes was Family Planning. Like his father before him, he considered controlling our population was a sine qua non for India achieving its true potential. India certainly needed to develop in order to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. But development has necessarily to be in keeping with our endangered environment. Again, development could only be within manageable limits as sought to be laid down, unsuccessfully at that time, by the country’s population control programme. Population, environment and development constituted the Holy Trinity for him.

Sohrab with Prince Philip at the inauguration of the
Priojsha Godrej National Conservation Centre, New Delhi, on November 3, 1987.

Multiplying numbers had made management impossible in India. Sohrab’s rage and frustration often made him use strong language: "Perhaps India is the only country with the distinction of knowing what is good for it, and yet not implementing measures to achieve this, because it disregards discipline, civic sense and the like and extols its peculiar democracy. Self-respect is a revered word. But do we cultivate self-respect?"

Again, he deplored the tendency of constantly talking about our glorious past, unlike the upcoming countries which concentrate on the present and the future. This, according to him, was the bane of our existence: "We have now succeeded in polluting the holy river Ganga as also the Jamuna, including of course the sacred Vrindavan. One cannot think of any country sinking to this level ?Was it not our bounden duty to clean it up? Can one feel happy about reciting the names of these polluted rivers when singing the National Anthem? How hard-hearted can we be? Pollution involves the throwing of dead bodies and human waste and what not, constantly polluting the holy river! Could this not have been prevented through the control of the population? One could give so many other such examples."

Environmental considerations were at that time becoming global concerns as witness the World Wildlife Fund ? International. It was at the request of WWF-founder, HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands that Lt. Col. (Maharaja) Fatehsinghrao P. Gaekwad of Baroda opened an Indian chapter, WWF ?India. The scope was enlarged in accordance with the organisation’s needs and the name changed to World Wide Fund For Nature ?India.

Established in 1969 as a modest wildlife conservation organisation with its focus on protecting a particular species of wild flora and fauna, WWF ?India became the country’s largest conservation non-government organisation (NGO) with a network at that time of 18 state and divisional offices spread across the country and a Secretariat in Delhi for which adequate accommodation had to be found in 1987. Godrej, on Sohrab’s initiative, undertook to bear the entire cost of building the imposing Pirojsha Godrej National Conservation Centre, which was opened in 1989. Sohrab himself became the President, and after his death the presidentship passed on to his nephew Jamshyd.

Preservation of our heritage, as part of the environment, also deeply concerned Sohrab. In a land which reveres its temples, the efforts of the Indian Heritage Society, Bombay Chapter, of which he was Chairman, were directed to preserving one of the city’s oldest temples. This, however, landed Sohrab in a most unseemly controversy. This temple was unique in heritage value in that it combined four styles of art ?Mughal-style inlaid flooring, Maratha-style galleries, Victorian patterned ceilings and Rajasthani wall paintings. It was, in fact, the sole surviving example of the ghar-derasar style of architecture in Bombay ?so called, according to experts, because it was a means of camouflaging the religious nature of the structure from marauding intruders of the 17th and 18th centuries. There were several other features well worth preserving like the Kalpa Sutra-style murals and typically Gujarati wooden structures. So Sohrab and like-minded conservationists and art buffs were shocked to learn that this 180-year-old Jain temple, a historical landmark in the congested Pydhonie area, was cleared for demolition by the Bombay Municipal Corporation.

Permission granted, the temple’s trustees lost no time in starting the demolition. The Indian Heritage Society approached the courts. But its case was considerably weakened by the fact that the Government of Maharashtra had verified the temple’s dilapidated condition. There was also a partial collapse of the temple structure in 1996. Ultimately, the Indian Heritage Society approached the Supreme Court, which issued a stay order. The temple trustees were naturally furious. As an active participant, Sohrab became the target of the trustees? wrath. An angry procession of devotees carrying banners almost stormed Godrej Bhavan. Sohrab happened to be out of Bombay on that day. The leaders of the procession met his secretaries and vented their spleen on them. One of the protestors actually threatened that since Godrej Bhavan was a non-heritage building, they would break it down! A compromise was ultimately reached at the Supreme Court’s insistence, whereby the new temple would adhere to the original site, the original beams, columns, marbles, etc. would be retained and refixed, and the deities installed at the same places as per Jain scriptures and texts.

Sohrab, as was his wont, took maximum advantage of his visits to over 160

countries, including Antarctica. These were in the nature of study tours. He had fascinating encounters with heads of state, top scientists, artists, musicians, industrialists and politicians, including Jacques Chirac and several others. But it was his visit to Antarctica that may be said to be the peak of his travels. "Antarctica was a most unforgettable experience for me. I cannot do better to express my feelings than to quote the eloquent words of Sir Peter Scott in his Foreword to Ship In The Wilderness by Jim Snyder and Keith Shackleton: ‘To see the wildlife and the fantastically beautiful scenery of Antarctica, to gaze upon the swamp forests of the Asmat in West Irian, to savour the unbelievable colours and shapes of the Indo-Pacific coral reefs, is to become imbued with the determination to prevent them from being destroyed by the pressures of an ever-increasing human population. Great works of art have to be protected from vandals; so too does the natural world, that intricate and exquisite ecological web which is the basis of all life on earth.?quot;*
* Abundant Living, Restless Striving by Sohrab P. Godrej as recounted to B.K. Karanjia.

India took the initiative in exploring this great virgin continent and confined its activities strictly to scientific research under the leadership of Dr. S.Z. Qasim, with whom Sohrab became quite friendly. It is not enough just to know the earth, Sohrab felt. We need also to cherish and preserve it, most certainly its last continent in all its pristine glory. Antarctica holds the key to the earth’s story ?and to ours. As an Irish proverb has it: "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live."

Sohrab was particularly proud that a large expanse of mangrove forest, perhaps the best on the west coast, adjoins the Godrej township, which is being maintained and protected from poachers by the Soonabai Godrej Trust.

Sohrab was the recipient of several awards listed alongside. When I congratulated him on receiving the Padma Bhushan award in 1999, he remarked: "People tell me I should have declined to receive anything less than the Padma Vibhushan." He smiled rather sadly and made a deprecatory gesture with his hand, perhaps at the lack of their understanding of him that they could even conceive of him doing something like that!

What was Sohrab’s philosophy of life? He believed that the best philosophy is to do the best one can. According to him, there were several components to this philosophy. The first is noblesse oblige, which holds that those who are better off in life owe an obligation to those less fortunate than themselves. Another component is to live and let live, acquire tolerance and understanding of other people. Still another is to bid good-bye, firmly and finally, to the deplorable chalta hai, chalne do (let it pass) attitude and develop a rational ethos, cultivating the scientific temper.

Deeply concerned about the problems ravaging the country, particularly population explosion, the subsequent environmental degradation and the all-pervasive corruption, Sohrab used various fora to propagate his slogan: ‘‘Help Bring Our India Up ?Quickly!’’ In fact, before his last visit abroad, he was planning to call a meeting of top opinion-makers in the country to seek their co-operation in propagating and devising ways and means of living up to the concept of uplifting the country in the shortest possible time. Unfortunately, Fate willed otherwise.

Before expecting others to live up to Mahatma Gandhi’s slogan: ‘‘Each of us must be the change we want to see in the world,’’ Sohrab set them a living example. He valued life, so had a great respect for death. No appointment, however important or urgent, ever stopped him from finding time to go and pay his last respects to a friend or colleague, high or low, who had passed away. If he happened to be out of Mumbai, he would make it a point to write to the surviving family member not the usual, formal condolence letter, but a thoughtful, feelingly drafted epistle intended to assuage his/her grief.

He had an unusual but quite characteristic habit. He would scrupulously correct, in pencil, grammatical or typographical errors in letters he received. A futile exercise? Ah! But he just couldn’t let things be. He absolutely abhorred the typical chalta hai, chalne do attitude.

He was a caring person, who cared about others less fortunate than himself. He’d worry about handcart-pullers, how the heavy loads he saw them dragging over uneven roads must be shortening their life span. To the street urchins begging for alms at traffic light junctions, he’d distribute biscuits and cakes of soap. Seeing a dead body lying naked on the road, he was shocked at the cruelty of denying to the poor even this last vestige of dignity ?he started carrying a white sheet in his car for such eventualities. He’d often stop his car to plead with pedestrians to use the footpath. Once he rebuked a man: "You shouldn’t be spitting on the road." The man turned round to rudely shout at him: "Then where should I be spitting, in my house?"

Sohrab was a worrier and a doer, and he was indefatigable.

Abundant Living, Restless Striving, the title of his autobiography, adequately describes his life. But it does not explain the affection in which Sohrab was held by all those who had dealings with him or came in contact with him. More condolence meetings were held for him than for any other figure in recent history. More condolence letters were received at the office and by family members, conveying more than anything else the sense of personal loss: "There isn’t anybody like him left." Maybe some of his grace rubbed off on all those who came in contact with him. Maybe, in him, they glimpsed the secret of radiance.