Yashovardhan Birla talks to Shobhaa Dé about coping with tragedy, gaining a foothold in the business world and writing his first book.
Yashovardhan Birla does not fit into any one mould. He heads a multi-crore conglomerate but his public persona is perceived contrary to that of a business magnate. He is a fitness addict who is equally rooted in spiritualism. At 23, Birla faced up to an accident that took his family away but he recovered from that devastating tragedy. Now he has decided to tell his story to the world, through his latest book On a Prayer, published by Shobhaa Dé Books, an imprint of Penguin India. Excerpts:
Shobhaa Dé: This is perhaps the first candid, moving biography of a contemporary business person and also an iconic one in terms of the family and what it represents, to be published in India. How difficult was it to decide to publish a book?
Yash Birla: I didn’t think even for a second, mainly because it was you who proposed it to me. I remember there was an article in a newspaper about my fitness, and that’s how it started. You called up my wife Avanti and you said ‘I want to do a book’. A book on me? Who wants to write? Who wants to read? Then when I spoke to you, I felt, ‘okay, let me do it.’
I am a very impulsive person. Sometimes it’s good for me and sometimes it’s not. I am quite talkative and happy to share my views and thoughts — good, bad — with anybody who wants to know. So for me to share it through a book didn’t require much thought.
SD: It’s a very personal book. We can hear your story almost as if you are narrating it. There are aspects of your life that are deeply tragic and for a lot of people that is not easy. And your visual memory is so vivid. It goes back so many years and yet I felt that I was present at the moment when your parents were brought home, your final look at them and so on. How difficult it must have been for you to recreate those moments and you know that it’s going to be read often by complete strangers.
YB: It’s so vivid in my memory because it’s a chapter of my life. When life continues, then certain things fade, some remain. But this is almost like a chapter that’s over; almost suddenly. So everything that’s happened till then is cased in my memory, there’s nothing after that.
SD: You don’t want to let go…
YB: I don’t want to let go. So I have to keep it with me. So what my life is today is like a different movie — not even Part -2. All those things are so deeply embedded in my conscience, psyche, memory — it’s well preserved. So even when I talk about it I can see each scene going on.
Talking about those tragic events… they are still tragic but when I think about my parents and that whole incident, earlier I would think of it with remorse, pain, sorrow. Today, it makes me detached. I may be worried about, upset about or angry but when I think of that whole episode, it makes me wonder why I worry about trivial things, when I’ve lived through that and life is such that it can go away in a second.
Life is a perception of how we look at things. Everything has a purpose and meaning — they came, they lived, they had a meaning, they went. So, today when I think of them, I do so with a smile, not with tears.
Of course, it’s a very painful thing for anybody. For people to deal with death is not easy. And sine I’ve dealt with it to the power of 10 because it all happened so suddenly and all three of them at the same time,. I feel that if somebody can get courage (from the book), and I can help them live through some catastrophic time like this and think positively at that time, then to me it’s my service to humanity.
SD: Has the tragedy changed your perspective and changed the way you look at, maybe, a crisis? Has that made you a better person to deal with the crisis that you may be dealing with now?
YB: We are all humans and sometimes we wonder why so many things happen together. I feel that every crisis is an opportunity for evolution internally. Sometimes what you don’t realise in the good times, you might get a spark of intuition and have something wonderful happen during a crisis. Maybe you just need a wake-up call and everything will be fine.
In every crisis, you should have patience. Do whatever is right. Sometimes, we try and do wrong to cover up whatever we are going through in a view to set it right later. But no, do right. That’s the whole idea of crisis. And to some extent — a lot of people get affected by other’s opinions, thoughts and the media, which make people take a lot of wrong decisions; makes you weak, makes you do things that you don’t usually do. I think one has to just remain not oblivious and ignore what everybody else says.
SD: There is a lot in your book that also involves other family members. Were you conscious that they may respond to it in a certain way? Have they read it so far?
YB: It’s too soon and I’ve not asked them. But I am sure sooner or later it’ll get everywhere and to all of them. Ours is a traditional family. I am a very traditional-minded person, but many things in the book are not very traditional — my look (cover picture), certain instances of my growing up… Now I think everybody just knows that this is me as a package — good, bad and ugly. So I think they’ve learnt to accept me for the way I am. They’re all very affectionate.
SD: What about your children and wife? There are certain incidents about them, especially Avanti, when she had your daughter Shloka. As a woman, it’s deeply personal. Did you show it to her before it was published?
YB: No, I didn’t. Avanti is a very supportive person. As long as it is good for me she’s fine with it. She doesn’t speak as much as I do, but I can make out from her expression if she likes something or not. We’ve been married 23 years and you know the other person’s psyche. These are not the things that will upset her.
SB: And your children…
YB: My older son has not read it. I asked my younger son the other day that a lot of people outside are reading it, why are you not? He said: “I am reading another book. I’ll read yours when I finish the other one.” (laughs) But my daughter has read it.
SD: There are also references to Badi Ma (Priyamvada Birla). She played a very key role in your life. So how do you think your family will respond to her representation in the book?
YB: I am grateful to Badi Ma for certain things she did and I was extremely fond of her. There is one side of me that will always remember her, miss her because when my parents passed away, she was there with me. And I have very fond memories of her. But, of course, there is a case going on and it’s sub judice. I don’t know what really happened. And why it came out the way it did. The family was also angry about the way it came out. It’s so unlike the family tradition or custom, to hand over the property to someone from outside the family. We were all confused about how it happened. Of course, it is all now in the court of law. That doesn’t negate the fond memories I have. In fact, whenever I remember my ancestors — when I do my shradda — I always remember her.
SD: Has Kumar (Mangalam Birla) read the book yet?
YB: He’s been travelling. To the few people who have been mentioned in the acknowledgement, I am going to send a copy of the book along with my thoughts about my relationship with them, and also put a marker where their names are mentioned. I’ll send him one too.
SD: And Lalit Modi. You have an unusual relationship with him…
YB: I’ve known Lalit from my childhood. I was not close to him. My sister, mother and dad were. Once when Lalit had undergone an operation in Mumbai, when his anaesthesia was wearing off, he kept saying “Sunanda aunty, Sunanda aunty…” In that semi-conscious state, he only thought of my mother. But I never really got to know him well because he was my sister’s friend. He had a crush on her or something like that; I don’t know what was going on. These were the stories that were going around when we were growing up. But he was fun, jovial and lively. I am in touch with him off and on…
SD: There are also funny incidents with Gautam Singhania. I think it’s refreshing and wonderful that they are all mentioned by name. You have been very upfront about every aspect of your life. You have not tried to camouflage anything. That takes a lot of courage. Were you aware that once again you were breaking the mould?
YB: That’s me. Take it or leave it. Whether I fit into the mould of a business person or not, that’s me.
SD: To strike a rapport also means trusting the person writing about your life. Sometimes you may even feel you’ve shared too much. Did you ever feel that?
YB: No, never. I have no problem sharing anything. You ask me the same questions on a podium and I’ll answer them. That’s the way I am made. Whatever doesn’t hurt anybody else, I am ready to share about my life with them, with anybody. So it was not difficult at all.
SD: A lot of people who do their biographies, especially celebrities, dress up their life. They want it to be something other than what it is; a half make-believe. But here you are so completely transparent. With you and Avanti, the temptation is to always pass judgement without knowing anything about you, mainly because of your public persona. Did you feel that the book could straighten out that image?
YB: I don’t care what anybody thinks or does. I don’t want to rectify anything. I am the way I am, and that’s it.
SD: The important thing the book shows is that, beyond the fairy tale, these are human beings — sensitive and extremely in touch with their spiritual selves and the world rarely sees or acknowledges that.