Birlas are Marwaris of Pilani of the Maheswari subcaste. Strict vegetarians and teetotallers, they venerate the cow and conform to Vaishnavite ritual. They marry within their sub-caste: a breach of this tradition can invite ostracism. They regarded the crossing of the seas sinful and had to undergo ritual cleansing before being readmitted. They prospered as small-time traders in Pilani till they found greener pastures in metros, mainly Bombay and Calcutta. Wherever they went, they carried their family traditions with them and remained a close-knit community. They earned goodwill where they settled by generous donations to charitable institutions.
By the time G.D. was brought to Calcutta in the 1890s, the family was well-set on the road to opulence: his father Baldev Das had acquired the honorific of Raja. They made their home in the Marwari mohalla of Bara Bazaar. Fortunes were built on trading in opium, import of cloth and jute. For a while, G.D. was sent to Bombay where he picked up English and read the classics. He followed the strict regimen of his childhood, rising well before dawn and spending at least two hours before sunrise in prayer and physical exercise. (He even toyed with the idea of becoming a professional wrestler). Back in Calcutta, he joined the Bengali terrorists. He was named among those wanted in the Rodda conspiracy case to smuggle arms and went underground for three months.
There was an upward swing in the Birlas’ fortunes in 1911. Besides opium and silver, they made a killing supplying jute bags and uniforms to the army when World War I broke out. They went into textiles in a big way setting up mills across the country. They also acquired two English newspapers, the New Empire and Bengalee. G.D. also became the chief spokesman of the Marwari community in the European-dominated Chambers of Commerce and the Bengal assembly. He was always involved in politics. His instinctive bias was towards right-wing Hindu nationalism and he generously gave money to Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and the Benares Hindu University. He was also taken up with Lala Lajpat Rai, gave him money for personal expenses and his Servants of India Society. Ultimately he turned to Mahatma Gandhi, extended him hospitality in the Birla Houses in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi as well as bailing out the Congress when it was in dire need of funds. It was no coincidence that the Mahatma was staying at Birla House in Delhi when his assassins got him. The Birlas donated the house to the nation.
G.D. was never to take the steering wheel but content to remain a backseat driver. But with the Mahatma’s death, he lost this privileged position. For a while, Pandit Nehru heeded his advice. He approved of the first five-year plan setting out the roles of the public and private sectors in nation-building. As Nehru decided to keep his distance from big business houses and put his idea of socialism in practice, the Birlas receded into the background. He disapproved of the second five-year plan and the influence of Mahalanobis in decision-making. He tried to re-establish contacts with the government when Indira Gandhi became prime minister. But she inherited her father’s distrust of industrialists. "Our private enterprise is more private than enterprising," she scoffed. She returned a gift he had sent on Rajiv’s marriage. But she accepted his money. Likewise, Morarji Desai disdained associating with him but had no compunction taking money from him. G.D. abandoned his attempts to influence the government and contented himself with his business enterprises and his extended family. His health also began to fail. He died in London on June 11, 1983, and according to his own wishes was cremated there. His sons brought his ashes to India to be immersed in the Ganga.
Kudaisya’s biography is meticulously researched, is well-worded and makes good reading. Its only shortcoming is that it does not tell us very much of his relationship with his wife and children. We can only infer that he was close to his son Basat Kumar and wife Sarla who looked after him whenever he fell ill. But we can absolve the author as the Birlas continue to treat their lives as strictly private and resent trespassers.