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Soonuben, married to Naval Godrej, died on 23 April, 2001. Published below, as a remembrance, are extracts from an interview with CHANGE Editor, published in “Godrej: A Hundred Years?(Volume II).


Soonuben N. Godrej   

In Fond

Godrej have come a long way from when Soonuben would trudge from one worker’s house to another to try and persuade them to send their children to the classes being conducted in a makeshift storeroom. These have now grown into Udayachal, recognised as a group of model schools in the metropolis, in which workers?children consider it a privilege to be educated.

Pirojsha wanted women to do social work. With so much unemployment in the country, he didn’t want women to work in offices and occupy jobs meant for men. Naval shared his father’s belief, considering the ever increasing social work that was required to be done in a developing country. ‘I don’t think it was a chauvinistic attitude at all,?avers Soonuben. After a pause, she adds: ‘He definitely wanted women to have a say in running their lives and to be empowered to that extent.?/font>

Soonuben wasn’t interested in sitting at a desk ?certainly not to the extent she was, and is, in looking after the welfare of workers?wives and children. At the Pragati Kendra, along with classes for children, literacy classes for men and women were also started. Some workers requested classes in English but, says Soonuben ‘they were adamant that either Aunty (Cooverbai Vakil) or I run the classes ?which was a tall order considering the distance from our home and the needs of my children. I had no help from other family members at that time.?/font>

Soonuben recalls how when Naval broached the idea of a school for workers? children, she approached her old teacher and great friend Cooverbai Vakil for advice. Her parents and the Vakils were staunch followers of Gandhiji and the Swadeshi movement. They always wore khadi. Her father had almost finished his articleship after gaining a law degree when, at one word from Gandhiji, he gave up the idea of a career in law. He didn’t have the money to pay the penalty, but Sohrabji Pochkhanawala, founder of the Central Bank, came to his rescue and also gave him a job in the Bank. When the Bank opened a branch in Karachi, he was sent there.

Soonuben’s mother too was one of the few Parsi women to get a college degree. She actively joined the freedom movement and was all set to go to jail in obedience to Gandhi’s call, but family pressures prevented her. She was an avid reader, a theosophist, besides being a keen social worker. ‘Two important values,?Soonu recalls, ‘my brother and I learnt from our parents were to help and serve others and to share everything. We learnt from the example they set us to live simply. My mother was very fond of reading and we too developed a love of books and reading ?especially my brother Naval who is happiest ensconced in a quiet corner with a book.

Cooverbai’s help in planning the school was readily forthcoming. ‘Without Mrs. Cooverbai’s help, guidance and encouragement,?says Soonuben, ‘it would have taken us much longer to achieve what we did. The foundation that was laid by her was strong enough to withstand any wrong influences from outside. And working holistically with the whole family ?students, home and workplace ?the concepts and thinking of the employees was changed towards a more modern outlook, whereas in the old days their highest ambition was Standard VII pass for their children!?/font>

Her husband never brought work home. Home was sacrosanct. Home was for the family. He would talk to Soonuben casually about various lines of manufacture: typewriters, refrigerators, machine tools. Machine tools particularly were a passion for him, as shapers of Indian industry in the future.

At home Naval would concentrate on his children. He would show them, by example, never by preaching, the right and the wrong of things. He took pleasure in little things, much as a child would. With children around him, whether his own or his workers? he’d become a child himself, mingle freely with them, share their fun and games.

Birthdays, anniversaries were occasions for considerable merriment. ‘Nobody celebrated our birthdays when we were children.?he’d complain. His genuine fondness for children showed itself in times of crises. Once granddaughter Freyan suddenly took ill, reacting strongly to a polio injection. Naval spent the entire night at her bedside holding her hand, comforting her. He did the same some time later, with a friend’s child.

Naval oozed confidence and his confidence was infectious. He wanted people to stand on their own feet. This was the driving force behind his many philanthropies ?to help people help themselves.

Naval had great hopes in his son Jamshyd. Keen on track and field events, Jamshyd became Savage House Captain and School Captain at Cathedral School. He was sent to the Illinois Institute of Technology so that he would get an all-round education. He wasn’t a first-rate scholar, but he won plaudits as an excellent boxer and in hockey, football and swimming. Naval always encouraged this.

Naval, according to Soonuben, didn’t lay too much store on MBAs. He believed rather in the commonsense approach in business, the eagerness to learn, the capacity to work hard. He was scientific and rational in his thinking, never confused or muddled. He had faith in his workers, willingly empowering them to get the best out of them. He never faltered or hesitated, his decisions were quick ones.

He believed, deeply, in the country developing its own technology. But he wasn’t rigid or fanatical about it. In manufacturing typewriters, for instance, he realised how foreign technology could help produce a better product. And he suffered no notions of false prestige, he welcomed such help.

You have heard of men of action? Well, consider this: at midnight one day, Soonuben received a distress call, a Senior Manager was lying seriously ill at the Breach Candy Hospital. Blood was needed, of a rare type, for transfusion the very next morning. Soonuben set to work. By 7.00 the next morning, four donors of the required blood type were at the hospital. Small wonder, this inspired the concerned Manager’s undying loyalty. Reminded of the incident, Soonuben brushes it aside: ‘Oh, I just used the telephone and made some calls.?/font>

Soonuben has a strong creative sense. For the Godrej stall in the Exhibition at New Delhi on the occasion of the Asiad, she designed a huge mural out of lock wastes, discarded shackles, keys, pins, etc. It became the cynosure of all eyes, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s when she visited the Exhibition.

We talked about the future of Godrej. ‘It was my husband’s dying wish that the family should hold together,?she recalls. ‘They should continue to do so. That’s the important thing.?/font>

I suggested, there is today so much to stay together for, one cannot imagine their not doing so.

She reflected on that. Then she sat back. The longish session had tired her. She removed her specs, rubbed her eyes and stared into a future ?or was it recalling the past?

I saw again the tall, slender lady, attractive in white, with the winning smile, visiting the Lalbaug office in the late fifties, always busy and in a hurry. I saw her sitting opposite ?strong-willed as ever, so frail now, even the smile somewhat tired.

But the sense of fulfilment comes through strongly. A life well and truly lived. Obviously, her memories are very precious to her. She doesn’t easily part with them.

With a slight variation on the poet’s lines one might say: "The music in her heart she bears, long after it is heard no more."