I was born at a tumultuous time, just a month after India gained independence. My mother’s family, barring her sister, migrated to Pakistan, while my father’s family chose to stay back. I would often hear tales of separation as a child, like how my father’s close friend and neighbour left his home overnight. In fact, a day after he told my father, “I will see you tomorrow,” the servants came and said, “Syed saab toh Pakistan chale gaye!”
It came as a shock to my family. Suddenly the house next door turned into a place for refugees from Punjab. Despite a lot of sadness around the partition, it was a happy childhood because of my parents, who ensured that my two elder sisters and I would never feel bitter about the split.
I grew up in Patna in a very cosmopolitan neighbourhood. There were lots of children around, and even today, I am in touch with them. Many of them excelled in life, a few became ambassadors, one a famous actor, Roshan Seth, and several others reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Patna then was a cosy, comfortable town where I spent some wonderful years. We also had a large ancestral haveli at Arrah, about 45 kilometres from Patna, which we visited every Sunday.
My father, a doctor by profession, was extremely protective of me and I was pampered a lot; and being the youngest of the three, it was perhaps to be expected. I recollect that my school was not too far from where we lived, yet he would escort me to the school gate and stay there till I was out of sight. Even if I sneezed, he would get worried, to the extent that he had my tonsils removed! So, I ended up being a nazuk baccha.
I loved my father deeply, but it was my mother who was the biggest influence in my life. She made sure that I read the Koran and appointed a maulvi to come home daily and teach the scriptures to my sisters and me. I was seven when I read the Koran for the first time. In fact, after I became an adult, she would keep asking me “Have you paid your zakaat?” And I would sheepishly reply, “No, but I have paid my income tax!” Funnily, an enduring memory that I have about my mother is related to her absent-mindedness. She was constantly misplacing her spectacles, and once, after searching every nook and corner of the house, we found them in the refrigerator!
My mother also had a flair for poetry — right from ghazals to qawwalis. She loved bait-bazi, which is similar to antakshari but played with Urdu poetry. She would often take me to mushairas but I never appreciated ghazals; though I loved qawwalis.
I lost my father when I was 15, and my mother was just 42 then. She showed remarkable poise and courage while raising the three of us. Since my father belonged to a family of zamindaars and owned substantial properties in Arrah town as well, we had a real estate department to deal with the tenants who were largely shopkeepers and traders. Since the rent from the estate was the main source of income then, she would also get tough with those who would not pay. She was immensely respected in Patna and was commonly referred to as Begum Saheb.
Since she was the daughter of a politician, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, a senior leader of the Muslim League, she was under great pressure to enter politics to look after the interest of Muslims, especially that of women. But she refrained from doing so and maintained, “Meri izzat nahi rahegi agar mein isme (politics) utar aaoon toh”. She lived on her own terms till her last breath.
I really grew up from a boy to a man under my mother’s tutelage. She encouraged me to be ambitious and would often say “Padhoge, likhoge toh banoge nawab, kheloge, kudoge toh banoge kharab”. I was quite a mama’s boy when I was a child and she would later tell me that she couldn’t have ever imagined that a child who wouldn’t let go of her coat tails would become so independent. Even when I lost my wife, my mother was a pillar of strength for my daughter and me. In fact, I strongly believe that we are shaped more by our mothers than our fathers.
I went to Doon school when I was 11 years old. At my school in Patna, I was in class III, but in Doon, I was admitted into class V after giving an entrance test. This relocation together with the loss of the warmth and security of home, which I subconsciously missed, may have held me back from realising my true potential in my early years at Doon.
In fact, just a decade ago I was cleaning up our Patna house, when I stumbled upon the correspondence from the school to my parents. Many of my progress reports had remarks from the headmaster, John Martin, which read, “Ishaat has tremendous potential but it is not being realised”. Besides Mr Martin, there were many other outstanding teachers at Doon, but the two who left the greatest impression on me were Mr Gurdial Singh, my geography teacher, and an accomplished mountaineer and well-known mathematician, Mr OP Malhotra. Some of my batchmates at Doon became well-known politicians such as Sanjay Gandhi, Kamal Nath and Naveen Patnaik. However, my best friend in school was Kobad Ghandy, who was at the other end of the political spectrum — a leader of the Maoist movement. My dear friend has been languishing in jail now for perhaps over a decade. It pains me that I am helpless to do anything for him. At Doon, the motto is to be part of the aristocracy of service and not one of wealth, privilege or position. It was about being the best in whatever you do. The emphasis was on doing the right thing, and that learning has been the guiding principle in my professional journey as well.
At St Stephen’s, I pursued economics as I was always inclined towards mathematics and science. In retrospect, I am disappointed at my attainments in college. I was more an observer than a participant. I would go to debates, but not participate in them. I would attend a play but not act in it. During college politics, I would campaign but nothing more than that. Again, it was a certain lack of confidence, which I eventually overcame when I went to England.
I had considered engineering as a career seriously but did not get guidance in pursuing it. Then I thought of joining the IAS, but opted for chartered accountancy as I had a way with numbers.
I was partly influenced by Kobad’s father, who was the finance director of Glaxo. As things turned out, I think it was a good decision, as many of my bright friends, at the end of their tenure in the civil services, became a frustrated lot!
After my BA, I did one year of articleship at AF Ferguson & Co in Bombay. But a lot of my classmates had gone to the UK to do CA and were goading me to join them. At Ferguson, I met Keki Dadiseth, whose constant nagging of “don’t waste your time here, go to London” persuaded me to take the plunge to set sail.
I was 21 when I got a break to go to the UK, and boy, was it a huge culture shock. Moving out from a fairly conservative household — where we were told “namaz padho, roza rakho, stay within the limits” — to find a carefree society, was really a gulf too far. On my first day in London, I had to meet someone at the tube station. There were girls in minis, young couples walking arm in arm, it seemed like a pleasant dream! It was such an open society, and here I was, a teetotaller who didn’t drink or smoke, but all that changed.
Back then, there were no emails, and making calls to India was difficult and expensive. Initially, I wrote to mum once a week, which became once in two weeks, then once in three weeks and eventually, almost non-existent! My flatmates in London were my friends from college and we had a good connect with each other’s parents. So, I would get a letter from my friend’s mother asking, “How is my son?” and my friend would get a letter from mum asking the same question!
Life was quite difficult in the first two years. One had to live on 10 shillings a day, and wash one’s own clothes and cook. But what made it all bearable was the fact that London was an exciting place and it was the centre of the world in the ’60s. The Beatles’ studio was bang opposite my place of work on Old Burlington Street. That’s around the time when the band was recording the all-time classic ‘Get Back’. Though I used to see John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I wasn’t really an obsessed fan rushing for autographs. But I loved their music.
The first tipple I ever had was in May 1969. It was at a farewell of a friend of my roommate and I got dead drunk — mixing beer with whisky. I was so knocked out that I had to be carried home, which I didn’t remember, and woke up a good 12 hours later. After that I swore that I would never ever get drunk again!
While weekdays meant a lot of hard work, weekends were fun. I used to play soccer at Holland Park and went to movies in the evenings. But the crowning glory for me was when I cleared my final CA exams in 1973. I still remember the date: January 29, 1973, when the results were announced. After spending a sleepless night, I anxiously watched as the postman walked up to the door. He was on time – 7 am sharp. If you received a thin envelope, it meant you had failed, since it would be just a curt letter informing you “had failed to satisfy the examiners”. But if you had made the grade, then the letter would be a meaty one with lots of forms to be filled out for membership of the institute. When I got my envelope, it was a fat one, and indeed, it was the most memorable moment of my life. I was over the moon and the first person I wanted to share this news with was my mother. Since getting through to Patna was impossible, I got through to my sister in Mumbai and asked her to inform my mother that I had made it. Then we had an over-the-top celebration. I also got a huge bump in my salary — from 1,200 pounds to 2,500 pounds per annum. After a couple of years, I decided to come back to India even as my friends kept telling me that I was making a big blunder. I wanted to be with my family, and at heart, I was a desi. I have never regretted my decision.
I believe that my stint in the UK built my tenacity. Working in a foreign land, visiting and talking to clients on sensitive, and sometimes controversial issues, sharpens one’s communication and inter-personal skills immensely. In fact, a multi-cultural society in India provides this experience and I believe the success of Indian managers in global companies is partly because of this skill that we develop. One did experience racism. When we went to pubs, we would hear snide remarks such as: “Here come the Pakis”. But such instances only taught me that I shouldn’t harbour prejudice and hatred about people from different races, and I loathe those who do.