"When I did research my motto was: Only the best is good enough for me. And that brings prosperity if the researcher is capable."
It was while he was in Germany studying for the prestigious degree in Mechanical Engineering (Dipl-Ing) and in Technical Chemistry (Dr. Ing) from the Technical University of Berlin, Charlottenberg, that Pirojsha’s second son, Burjor, learnt possibly the most important lesson that was to stand him in good stead in his reclusive but somewhat turbulent life.
The year was 1933. War clouds loomed on the horizon and Nazi Germany was the powder keg. Anti-Jewish feeling was at its height, and on an occasion Burjor was negotiating the price of a second-hand machine required by the Godrej Company back home, when an indoctrinated German girl, probably mistaking him for a Jew, reprimanded him that Germans hated such bargaining. Then, again, the Curator of the Berlin Museum, who was taking special interest in young Burjor, didn’t look like a German and was besides of an independent outlook. He was attacked by Hitler’s propaganda master, Dr. Goebbels, as a Jew, probably as a ploy to make him join the Nazi party. Nothing daunted, the Curator filed a suit against Dr. Goebbels and, surprisingly, won. The incident made Burjor realise "the importance of standing up for one’s principles."
Burjor never forgot this lesson. Often he had to stand up to the unequal competition of the giant multinational, Hindustan Lever. The latter had been lobbying for several years to set up a Linear Alkyl Benzene plant. Burjor opposed this, for in his researches he had discovered that Alpha Olefin Sulphonate, made from vegetable oils, was more eco-friendly. Early in the fifties, Burjor used this technology in his soap factory. Twenty years later, Hindustan Lever themselves adopted this technology!
Burjor was not only principled, always standing up for what was right, he had the courage of his convictions. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whom he greatly admired, imposed the Emergency, Burjor signed a protest letter to her against the restrictions imposed on freedom of expression. His elder brother Sohrab proudly recalled that he was the only industrialist in India to do so.
Back in Bombay after his studies abroad, Burjor developed a conscious culture of research and development at the factory, setting aside sizeable resources for this activity. In fact, research was a tonic for him. In an interview with this magazine’s Editor, he affirmed: "When I did research my motto was: Only the best is good enough for me. And that brings prosperity if the researcher is capable."
No truer words were spoken. Over the years this unceasing, relentless, single-minded pursuit of research resulted in many triumphant successes in the shape of new products, better designs and formulations and, most important, import substitution. Indeed, in a company which lays great store by continuity, research was the crucible where today’s dreams are melted down and shaped into tomorrow’s realities.
The dyglycerination of soap-making oils to recover the widely needed glycerine, making soaps from fatty acids thus avoiding the danger of incomplete saponification, refusing to use the arcane method of fitting used by most soap-makers in India — "fitting is an art," he remarked. "With science you can be very sure. I converted the art of soap-making into the science of soap-making." He added that unless the person who does the fitting is experienced in the art, the quality suffers. "Thus, there is dependence on such workers who may demand a fantastic price for their services, and behave like prima donnas."
Adopting a bold approach to technology, never averse to flouting tradition, having inherited the pioneering spirit of his father Pirojsha and uncle Ardeshir, Burjor almost single-handedly revolutionised the making of soaps and later of detergents. His greatest achievement, however, was still to come. Ever since scientists have known that germs breed prolifically on the human skin, they have searched for an effective germicidal soap. These germs are of two kinds, the transient and the resident. The transient variety is connected with the normal contact of the skin for an indefinite period. Ordinary soap readily removes the transient bacterial flora, but the resident bacteria far more slowly. Resting in the deeper layers of the skin, the resident bacteria become difficult to reach and slow to be destroyed.
The discovery of a whitish powder, Hexachlorophene, better known by its trade name, G-11, changed all that. In fact, G-11 was acknowledged worldwide as the outstanding contribution of chemistry to the soap industry.
It took no time for Burjor to realise that a soap containing Hexachlorophene would be ideal for India’s tropical heat, which gives rise to a number of irritating and acutely uncomfortable skin diseases, many of them communicable, especially in overcrowded cities, dwellings and public conveyances. Thus Cinthol, the only proven germicidal soap, was born. Launched on Independence Day, 1952, enriched with Fougere perfume, the reception Cinthol received from Indian users was truly phenomenal. Not only did the soap give the user that clean and refreshing feeling all day, so welcome in a hot dusty country, but it also made him/her acceptable and agreeable in company.
Throughout his life, Burjor trod the holy ground of research. Often he’d get lost in this solitary, trying and demanding work. It fell to his wife, Jai (theirs was a love marriage), a gifted teacher in her own right, to remonstrate gently that he give more time to his home. Even so, at the height of his career, he reserved Saturday evenings for movies with his wife. Then, again, never forgetting that he himself hadn’t been blessed with the most communicative of fathers, Burjor made it a point always to be close to his family, particularly to his two sons, Adi and Nadir.
Burjor was the most clear-headed man this writer has known. He exuded an air of quiet confidence. His deep knowledge and research put him on sure ground, enabling him to stand four-square to all the winds that blow. And these winds in the dog-eat-dog soap business could be quite harsh. He refused to be cowed down by Hindustan Lever with their far greater sales. "Once when oil prices rose," he reminisced, "their then Chairman, Cecil Petit, cut soap prices to kill competition. I had come to know at that time that Petit was to be replaced by Mr. A.J.C. Hoskyns-Abrahall. I spoke to the latter by telephone, and after a few minutes he restored the status quo ante and asked me whether I was satisfied. Needless to say, I thanked him."
Apart from research, Burjor was interested in comparative philology, particularly of the Indo-European languages. In his usual methodical and meticulous style he mastered the German language and spoke it correctly and fluently, besides having a deep affection for it. For several years he was the Honorary Consul-General of Austria. He was also very active in the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce and was its President at one time.
Always ready to make time for academic institutions and professional societies, he was Chairman of the Prof. J.G. Kane Memorial Trust which bestowed many benefits on the Department of Chemical Technology, University of Bombay. In turn, after Burjor’s death a worthy and fitting memorial to him was the Dr. B.P. Godrej Students Centre and Research Centre in Oils, Fats and Waxes Technology at the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT).
Punctuality, thoroughness, precision, courtesy and a certain reserve were qualities that set Burjor apart from most Indians. Add to this an obsessive pursuit of quality. To give a single example, a customer complained once that because of some particles on the Godrej shaving soap, he got blemishes on his skin after use. Burjor ordered each and every shaving soap in the factory to be X-rayed to determine what was wrong and correct it.
A recluse by nature, he was selective in his friendships. He congratulated me once on an article I had written in the (now defunct) Indian Post. We got to talking. He was eager to know whether I typed what I wrote. I told him I preferred to write long-hand. Did I suffer from writers’ block? I did, but listening to Western music would always melt it away. So that in a sense I wrote on borrowed inspiration. He questioned me closely about this. He recalled that when he was studying in Germany, and Germans were the most thorough people he had known, he had heard of experiments being conducted by industrialists to determine whether soft background music improved workers’ productivity. A matter worth investigating, he felt. His wasn’t a closed mind. It was always open to the possibilities of the littlest things.
A true patriot, he considered poor economic growth as the "bane of India" and its poverty, "a disgrace." He wrote a treatise on the art of living purposefully and well.
I would like to end with a quote from Godrej: A Hundred Years, Volume I: "Burjor gave the impression of a man removed, absorbed in his own thoughts, whose being was on a higher plane than that of most of us. Yet, he had a wry sense of humour that sparkled most unexpectedly. He impressed this writer in the many years he had known him as a somewhat paradoxical person, seemingly restless in his pursuit of research and yet at the same time totally at peace with himself."