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
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