LIV­ING IN A GILDED WORLD

The Birla scion re­counts his child­hood, deal­ing with the loss of his en­tire fam­ily and learn­ing how to run one of In­dia’s old­est busi­ness houses

India Today - - LEISURE - By Sharla Bazliel

Yash Birla lost his en­tire fam­ily in an air­plane crash in Ban­ga­lore when he was just 22. It was 1990, the econ­omy was just open­ing up and the young Birla scion sud­denly found him­self in charge of a vast em­pire he had to run while keep­ing a steely eye on rel­a­tives with their own agen­das. Pop­u­lated by a host of re­mark­able char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing M.P. Birla’s im­pe­ri­ous wife Priyam­vada, On A Prayer is an in­side ac­count of what it feels like grow­ing up with the com­pli­cated net­work of a large Mar­wari joint fam­ily which also hap­pens to run one of In­dia’s old­est busi­ness houses.

Grow­ing up for Yash Birla meant watch­ing Parveen Babi dance at his par­ents’ an­niver­sary bash and par­ty­ing with rock ‘n’ roll friends such as Ray­mond Chair­man and MD Gau­tam Sing­ha­nia and de­posed IPL com­mis­sioner Lalit Modi. It also meant ditch­ing the fam­ily Mercedes a few blocks away and walk­ing to col­lege rather than be em­bar­rassed, and con­sciously avoid­ing women who seemed more in­ter­ested in his back­ground than in him.

The man who emerges from these pages is not the flashy busi­ness scion and Page 3 favourite with a wardrobe so dis­tinc­tive that it was re­port­edly the in­spi­ra­tion for Aamir Khan’s look in Gha­jini but in­stead a con­ser­va­tive tee­to­taller with a deep com­mit­ment to spir­i­tu­al­ity and the body beau­ti­ful. By the end of the book, this para­dox makes per­fect sense. When all around is chaos, con­trol is ev­ery­thing.

Gau­tam (Sing­ha­nia) be­gan talk­ing to So­nia (Gar­ware) and Lalit (Modi) about a sports car he re­ally wanted. ‘In or­ange, it looks so hot you can’t imag­ine it,’ he said. Sit­ting there, among all those people, my friends, I still felt like an out­sider on the in­side... We were a new group and there was still a lot to know about each other. Jaideep (Gar­ware) walked over to the bal­cony and of­fered a drink to one of the girls...

We were on the fif­teenth floor and the view was breath­tak­ing. Drunk on co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol, the crowd in­side the apart­ment (in Mum­bai) was en­joy­ing a whole dif­fer­ent high. Some people held small pack­ets and walked into the bath­room in twos, some­times threes; co­caine wasn’t too com­mon, but weed was be­ing smoked a lot. The group would usu­ally con­sist of a guy who’d con­vince two or three girls to fol­low him for a ‘drag’... The joint would be rolled and the girls would take a puff. I’d see them stum­ble out, their eyes blank and glazed...

The whole thing dis­turbed me. Ev­ery­one had learnt that there was no point in try­ing to force me—what­ever they tried, I wouldn’t budge. This was one area of my life where peer pres­sure just didn’t have any im­pact. The drugs, the cig­a­rettes, the booze—I didn’t want to touch any of it, but this was what fu­elled the ‘scene’. The ‘in’ crowd did it all, but al­lowed me to watch. ‘Yash ke liye aur paani lao,’ Gau­tam would say and ev­ery­one would start laugh­ing. I had got used to it. Tonight will be fun, I thought. The night­club on the ground floor of the ho­tel (in Sin­ga­pore) was packed. In Bom­bay ev­ery­one had a good time, but was al­ways a lit­tle bit guarded. They had fam­ily names to pro­tect; their rep­u­ta­tions to main­tain. Here no one cared.

A fa­mil­iar-look­ing woman came up to our ta­ble just as we sat down. She was an air host­ess with Air In­dia and we recog­nised her from the Bom­bay air­port. Gau­tam had found her at­trac­tive and Jaideep had quickly gone up to her and asked her where she was fly­ing to. The des­ti­na­tion had turned out to be Sin­ga­pore and they had agreed to catch up over the next few days... I man­aged to gather the courage to ask the air host­ess if she’d

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