Pursuit of Happiness

Still in the game

A former national table tennis champion, Niraj Bajaj, continues to find the game invigorating

Niraj Bajaj’s workday begins at 10 am and there is no knowing when it ends. But one thing’s certain — his 45-minute morning fitness regimen includes at least 20 minutes of playing his favourite sport — table tennis — with his trainer. It’s a small luxury the 58-year-old chairman of Mukand allows himself now. “In my younger days I put my heart and soul into the game,” says Bajaj, who is also one of the promoters of the Rahul Bajaj-chaired Bajaj Group, with 40,000 employees and a market capitalisation of ₹80,000 crore. 

In a well-lit room in his Peddar Road apartment in Mumbai, a collection of his mother’s old sitars adorn a wall, while a book collection lines up another wall. In the middle of the room, a spotless blue table tennis table with the finest paddles and half a dozen Stag balls, gives away Bajaj’s enduring passion for the sport.  

Bajaj played his first table tennis game when he was seven years old. “I was the youngest of five brothers in the family, and we had a table tennis table at home. My brothers never used to let me play, initially. Then we made an arrangement. Every time I ran errands for them, they would let me play a game with them.” 

Spotting his love and intensity for the game, Bajaj’s father arranged a professional coach for him. With his help, Bajaj went on to be part of India’s national table tennis men’s team for seven years. In 1971, Bajaj won his first champion’s title at the All-India Table Tennis Championship finals as a 17-year-old, and followed this by two more wins in 1973 and 1975. Bajaj even led the team as captain for four years in world championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. 

At 22, as fast as he had risen to the top of the game, Bajaj suddenly decided to quit professional table tennis in 1977 — he was ranked world No. 7 at the time. “I decided it was the best time to quit when I was at the top of the game,” he says. “My family did not like my decision, though.” Two years later, he left for the US to pursue his management degree from Harvard Business School and then joined the family business, starting with Bajaj Auto. 

Now, thanks to his sporting streak, the Bajaj Group sponsors table tennis tournaments in Mumbai and has funded Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), an initiative started by billiards champion Geet Sethi and ace Indian shuttler Prakash Padukone, with Bajaj as one of the directors. “We have talent in the country but not enough resources to train players. OGQ is committed to bridge the gap between Indian champions and world champions, to help the country win Olympic Medals,” explains Bajaj, who’s also a recipient of the country’s highest sports honour, the Arjuna Award, and Maharashtra’s Shiv Chhatrapati Award. 

Being a sportsperson has made him more disciplined and optimistic in general, Bajaj says. Now, weighing 30 kg more than during his sporting days, the only opponent he plays against is son Nirav, who’s studying at Brunel University in London, and comes visiting often. “We have a lot of fun. Whenever he is at home, I grab him for a game or two,” says Bajaj, who always gives his son the benefit of a few points before starting. “Every match should be fair and square,” he smiles.