Khushwant Singh’s first novel, Train to Pakistan, won several awards and has been made into a film. His three-volume History of the Sikhs remains till date the best-researched book on the subject. And Delhi was a delightful piece of work, a mix of history, satire and burlesque. What many people don’t know is that Singh is also responsible for a business book. Along with Arun Joshi, he wrote in 1968 the biography of Lala Shri Ram of DCM: Shri Ram, A Biography (Asia Publishing House). The copy I have is priced Rs 15.
Singh tells the story of Lala Shri Ram (1884-1963) in his inimitable style. There was some criticism that in his attempt to tell a riveting story, Singh went short on numbers, facts and figures. That perhaps makes it a great read. Joshi, his co-author, worked for DCM and was probably also related to the family. But that did not hold back Singh from telling the full story.
Though he remains a venerated name in the world of business, there were contradictions in Lala Shri Ram’s persona. He was a nationalist and often lobbied hard for high import duties; but when the British decided to knight him, he readily accepted the dubious honour. He was perhaps the first businessman who put his faith and money on professionals; yet he kept tight control over his companies. Though he set up great schools, Lala Shri Ram was modestly educated.
But it remains an inspiring story. Lala Shri Ram was born in a dirty street of old Delhi. His grandfather was the kotwal of Delhi when the 1857 mutiny happened. He joined Delhi Cloth Mills (the name was changed to DCM in the 1980s when Swraj Paul raided the company) at a young age, and turned it around in a matter of years. From there he expanded to precision engineering, sugar, potteries, etc. After Independence, there gathered in front of his gates a long queue of refugees looking for assistance. Lala Shri Ram helped most of them, not with aid but loans to start business ventures. This, he was convinced, was a better way to get them started.
Later, several books came out on the Shrirams (Lala Shri Ram and his sons, Bharat Ram and Charat Ram) — letters, essays and remembrances. But none could match the brilliance of the first book. In fact, Joshi wrote another one on Lala Shri Ram, Lala Shri Ram: A Study in Entrepreneurship and Industrial Management, in 1975 (Orient Longman, Rs 85), which is loaded with facts and figures but fails to hold the reader’s attention for long.
Then, in 1994, well-known journalist M V Kamath wrote the biography of Charat Ram, Point and Lines (UBSPD, Rs 295). Charat Ram too was a great industrialist of his times and pushed DCM into new areas like chemicals, automobile components and cement. But there were problems at home. Charat Ram was embroiled in an ugly spat with his second son, Sidharth Shriram. The son resented his father’s closeness to N R Dongre, Charat Ram’s protégé and later business partner. Kamath pulled no punches and gave full details of how the war of words between father and son was fought.
It was called the Charat Ram-Dongre group. In public meetings, Charat Ram would call Dongre his successor. Dongre, after all, had proven his loyalty. Agitated workers had once surrounded a factory in Kolkata. It was clear they had come prepared to burn it. Dongre loaded all important papers in a truck, smashed a wall and drove it all the way to Charat Ram’s office in Delhi.
A few short years after the book came out, the inevitable happened. Charat Ram and Sidharth Shriram made up, Dongre was isolated. Blood once more proved thicker than water. What followed was another ugly fight. The father and son began to recover whatever territory was occupied by Dongre. A street fighter to the core, Dongre resisted with great resolve but lost the battle eventually. Both Charat Ram and Dongre are dead. But that is one turn of the Shriram saga that still remains to be told.