Rama Prasad Goenka (who died April 14) was decidedly the most remarkable man I have seen in my life’s journey. The world need not be told that R.P. Goenka was a great businessman. What was more remarkable was that he was an extraordinary human being, rich not only in bank balances but richer in human values, always keen to understand the world and enjoy the company of the people around him.
I first met him in 1984 – I was an employee of a company selling rubber goods on Free School Street and RPG acquired it with an NRI partner. I was worried, because in one of my novels there was a sarcastic reference to the statue of Sir Hari Ram Goenka, the elder brother of RP’s grandfather Sir Badridas Goenka. Fortunately, nothing unpleasant happened and he invited me to have tea with him at Goenka Nivas. That was the beginning of a long association worthy perhaps of a magnum opus.
Over these years, we talked on the telephone, met many a time, travelled together, stayed in the same hotel and perhaps discussed every possible subject on earth – from astrology to yoga, private lives of Mughal emperors to zest for life! He frankly spoke about his childhood, his growing up in a strange joint family on Muktaram Babu Street in north Calcutta, the shocking death of his mother in an air accident in a distant land. He was full of nostalgia and, you will not believe it, he took me around Muktarambabu Street, other old places associated with his boyhood and even the zenana bathing ghat that his forefather Ramchandra had built and which he was very keen to restore.
He also spoke of his Presidency College days, his daily tram and bus journeys, his endless College Street Coffee House hours, when some class friends jokingly would expect him to pay the bill, upsetting his Rs.50 monthly allowance from Munimjee.
I used to request him to tell me stories about his first day in Duncan House. On the first day, he missed his midday meal, because he was not properly dressed and he had not put on a tie. There were two waiting benches outside the European burrasahib’s chamber – one for sahibs and one for Indians. He used to narrate his encounter with grandfather Sir Badridas before leaving Goenka Niwas. He gave his grandson memorable advice: do not hide anything from your doctor and banker. And never underestimate the sanctity of a verbal commitment, never disown it whatever the cost. This he never forgot and I have seen him taking the burden of a few crores of rupees, although there was no written commitment.
He also jokingly used to say, “You talk about my Duncan days, my history Honours Degree from Presidency College, my Harvard University diploma, but never about my weaving diploma in jute technology from Dundee, Scotland.” That was a long story, particularly how he lost his chairmanship of the Indian Jute Mills Association. “Cotton and jute textile was in the family blood”, he used to say and we had enough material to write about Dacca Muslin, Paramsukh Dhoti, Ralli Brothers, Manchester Dhoti and Sarees, Basanti Cotton Mills, etc.
One day, he told me his first job was not at Duncans! He never forgot his first assignment as assistant telephone operator at Goenka Niwas. He had gone with his grandfather Sir Badridas to Deoghar to attend a marriage ceremony. On return, his father Keshav Prasad was furious, because the son had not taken his prior permission. He was immediately posted as a junior telephone operator. This is a humiliation R.P. never forgot and that one incident had a profound influence on his life — he took the vow to do exceptional things, including passing the matriculation exam three years before schedule.
There is no time today to talk about his remarkable achievements in business. The journey from Muktaram Babu Street to Ceat Mahal to Aurangzeb Road, to Victoria House is too thrilling to be believed. The takeover stories are comparable only to the conquest of kingdom in the good old days. With unlimited ambition and very limited resources, he achieved the impossible at a time “big business” had become a dirty word.
Rama Prasad used to say, “Yes, I have seen some successes, but many failures too. I failed in Balmer Lawrie, Premier Auto, Bombay Dying. I could not hold on to Dunlop. I bought Remington, but had to let it go. I could not retain Haldia Petrochemicals.”
He would then add, “I have no regrets. Every small failure I experienced was followed by a big success. I believe that whatever god does, he does it for my good.”
Another astounding claim – “Unlike the usual media impression, all my takeover bids have been friendly – except one. That was Premier Auto and that was stalled when Mrs Indira Gandhi called me and asked me not to push it ahead. I immediately stopped.”
What is the major lesson from these remarkable M&A conquests? “Never make the employees of your target company lose their heart – wherever I enter I go alone with a pair of hands, I do not step into a new company with too many of my old people.”
Friends, from a ringside seat I have seen a modest, truthful, god-fearing and bighearted man effortlessly conquer the world. In his later days he became deeply spiritual. I once asked him, what is the biggest position you have held – chairmanship of which organization? He replied – “Membership of the Tirupati Devasthanam Board.” What has been your biggest achievement? Which project? His astonishing reply: “Mahalaxmi Temple on Diamond Harbour Road. Please ensure that it is never called Goenka Temple.”
His philosophic queries were endless: “Why have big businesses not reached the heart of the people?” I confessed I did not know the answer. He replied: “As a PR man you may not know the answer, but as an author you should. Business is yet to prove that like all individuals, business, if it is so chooses, can also have a soul.”
(20-04-2013-Mani Shankar Mukherji, better known in Bengal by his pen-name Sankar, is a well known Bengali novelist and writer. He is the chief group adviser, corporate relations, to the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group. He can be contacted at [email protected])