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LUNCH WITH BS: Manish Kejriwal

Life begins at 40

Shobhana Subramanian  |  Mumbai 

Manish Kejriwal

It could take two years for a turnaround, but since is in the black, its head is currently focussed on an impending birthday bash and a holiday to Cambodia.

It’s not hard to figure out that Manish Kejriwal loves food. On any other day he would have shared his lunch box with colleagues in the office pantry, but the country head of private equity player Temasek Holdings can’t resist Japanese cuisine. So, it doesn’t take too much persuation to get him to have Lunch with BS at Wasabi, the Japanese restaurant at the Taj. The stock market may be tanking and the economy losing pace but Kejriwal’s not stressing; like many of his peers in the private equity space, he too gives me the long-term money spiel. Perhaps he’s more cheerful than the others because he’s managed to cash in some investments, and not all of them are under water. Or because he’s excited about a birthday bash — which he claims to know nothing about — that his wife’s planning as he turns 40, writes Shobhana Subramanian.

October can be a nice time of the year in Mumbai if you’re indoors and seated at a corner table with a truly beautiful view of the Gateway of India and the boats out at sea. There isn’t too much of a crowd — it’s so peaceful one wouldn’t think there was mayhem in the city with the stirring up all manner of trouble; or the fact that the panic in the markets just refuses to settle. Kejriwal is obviously familiar with the place and takes care of the order — he settles for a set menu — and both of us decide to stay with Japanese tea. Unusual for a Marwari to be so fond of non-vegetarian food and especially Japanese cuisine, I remark. But then Kejriwal has spent many years overseas — he went to high school for two years in Canada and later to Dartmouth College — and has also worked abroad. The exposure he got at the boarding school, he recounts, was quite invaluable. “We were 200 students from seventy countries who lived together in the middle of nowhere. That was real education. After that Dartmouth was a bit of a let down because it completely lacked diversity,” he says.

We start with a Miso soup and follow it up with a green salad dressed with a light Japanese vinegar and a dash of lime. Kejriwal suddenly decides that we should try out a plate of spicy tuna sushi with fresh wasabi, which is really excellent and disappears in a matter of minutes. Interestingly, though they’re strictly vegetarians at home, he, his brother and father like non-vegetarian food and so meet up every Saturday for lunch at some restaurant. And if he’s in New York, it has to be Nobu Next Door, which, he says is better than Nobu because it shares the same kitchen but not the high prices or the attitude.

How is it being married into a big business family? “Makes no difference”, says Kejriwal quite matter-of-factly. It depends on your attitude. If you take treat them as just a family who you are close to and who respect you for what you are and vice-versa, it’s easy. The moment you get overly enamoured, he says, it’s a problem. Also, you need to make sure that your business interests are always different. He adds that since everything’s not always hunky dory in business families, perspective from someone at a slight distance is always appreciated. Kejriwal admits that the thought of marrying into a big family had bothered him initially, but says he was bowled over by Sunayana’s simple and down to earth manner. He recalls his first meeting with his prospective wife’s grandmother — Rahul Bajaj’s mother — when they met for lunch. “I was wondering whether to go vegetarian but in the end decided that I would be myself. So I ordered fish. She probably didn’t speak to me for the rest of the meal but the point was made. Since then I haven’t had any problems when it comes to food,” he says laughing.

We’re having the Chilean sea bass with a light black bean sauce — they tell me it’s Yakizakana. Whatever it’s called, it melts in the mouth. Kejriwal has a good laugh when I ask whether he’s dieting. “I’m trying to eat the right food and also running and swimming a lot,” he says. Even though his father and brother are entrepreneurs, Kejriwal, a self-confessed news junkie who watches only CNBC, CNN or BBC, says he’s never felt the urge to strike out on his own. He jokes about how he’s “redeemed himself” by joining Temasek. “Whoever heard of a Marwari becoming a consultant? At least my current job has something to do with money. At McKinsey it was purely advice,” says the fund manager.

Is the bear market hurting? Not really, because the fund is sitting on very long-term capital. “Of course there’s pressure, that’s true even in good times but then we don’t need to get out,” he asserts. I try to provoke him about Temasek’s investments — you’ve bought in at rich valuations, I say. No, he asserts, most of the stakes are still in the money. Kejriwal’s thankful they didn’t fall into the real estate trap. “We were looking at it and were feeling a little stupid when the boom happened. But I’m glad we’re still looking at it because there has to be a correction in property prices.”

For dessert, he recommends the wasabi sorbet and I agree on the condition that we’ll share it. Even though Kejriwal believes it could be a year-and-a-half or even two before things get better — especially since consumers who got used to credit aren’t getting it anymore — he is buying selectively. “As of now we like telecom and infrastructure. We’ve always loved banking even though there may be some levels of stress. And don’t even think of asking me what you’re going to ask next,” he adds in the same breath, before I can get something on what’s happening at ICICI Bank.

So I ask him about his next holiday. It’s going to be Cambodia in the winter. The Kejriwals always holiday with five other families, each of whom takes turns to plan the vacation. But before that there’s the birthday bash; Kejriwal’s hoping that since his wife is good friends with most of his old flames, except for one, they will all be there at the party. No wonder he’s been trying to lose weight.

First Published: Tue, November 11 2008. 00:00 IST