INTERVIEW/KOKILABEN DHIRUBHAI AMBANI
By Taru Kajaria
Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani always preferred to stay away from the limelight. Even when the partition war shook Reliance, she remained motherly and graceful, gently guiding the peace process. In the 60th anniversary edition of Gujarati magazine Chitralekha, the first lady of India Inc. spoke about her childhood, life with Dhirubhai and her journey from Jamnagar to Maximum City. Extracts from the interview:
Life in Jamnagar
I spent my childhood in Jamnagar, which was not as developed as it is now. My father, Ratilal Jashraj Patel, headed the post and telegraph office there. He was a simple, austere and honest man and my mother, Rukshmaniben, was the perfect homemaker. We were three girls and two boys.
Father took a keen interest in our studies, while mother managed the house well with his frugal income. Surprisingly, she managed to save money and help the needy. Looking back, I realise that she may not have had formal education, but she was schooled by life.
As expected of girls from middle-class families, I would do all household chores, including sewing and embroidery. I was fond of reading and singing; I mostly sang devotional songs. In the 1940s, there were only government schools; I matriculated from the Sajuba Girls’ High School, Jamnagar.
I was married to Dhirubhai Ambani in 1955, but I did not dream that my life would change so much. It was after marriage that I saw Mumbai for the first time.
Moving to Aden and back
While going alone to Aden, Yemen, [where Dhirubhai was working], I could not stop marvelling at the steamer. I had not seen, let alone travelled on, one before. Aden was really a turning point in my life. I became a mother; Mukesh was born in Aden. Later, we returned to Mumbai and my family became complete with Anil, Deepti and Nina being born. All four were married in Mumbai. Today, ours is a family of 18, including my daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and nine grandchildren.
Wheels of change
I had not seen a car in Jamnagar, but when I went to Chorwad after marriage, my father-in-law, Hirachand Ambani, owned farms and bullock carts. Just before I left for Aden, Dhirubhai wrote to me, ‘Kokila, I have bought a car and I will come to collect you in that car. Guess what the colour of the car is?’ Then came the punch line! ‘It is black, like me.’ His sense of humour was something I adored most. When I reached Aden, he was there with the car. So from the bullock cart at Chorwad to the car at Aden and now on to planes and helicopters in Mumbai!
Life with Dhirubhai
Immediately after coming to Mumbai, life became fast. It was the post-Independence phase and Dhirubhai was making headway. Once Reliance was set up, newer directions opened up for us. Dhirubhai would always keep me updated on new projects and I would attend inauguration of every plant of ours. He would insist on my accompanying him to every function. When dignitaries came home, he would insist on my joining him.
I was educated in a Gujarati-medium school and learnt English on Dhirubhai’s insistence. An English tutor used to come home to teach the children, and Dhirubhai suggested that I join them. I grabbed the offer. He made it a point to take me to different hotels and introduce me to international cuisine.
When we travelled abroad, he would fill me in about the places and ask me to read up on the country. In short, he moulded me so well that I do not feel out of place anywhere. Today, if I do not understand a subject or word, I see no shame in asking others.
Keeping relationships alive
Look, no matter what level you reach, you should not forget old relationships. Dhirubhai would remember his friends when he was planning an outing. After we got our aircraft, he would often ask me to take my friends on the plane and helicopter. With the grace of God, neither he nor I ever felt arrogant.
My mother taught me the value of relationships. When we returned from Aden, we stayed at Jai Hind Estate in Bhuleshwar. It belonged to Shanta kaki, who was barely an acquaintance of ours in Aden. In fact, when I was going to Aden, my mother had told me about her. I met her in Aden and while we were returning to Mumbai, she just asked me to stay at her house in Bhuleshwar. This house became the starting point of our life in Mumbai. Yes, it is difficult to maintain relations, but it is not impossible.
When Dhirubhai died
After his demise, many people came to me to express their gratitude. One said, ‘Dhirubhai facilitated my daughter’s wedding’ and another said ‘Dhirubhai bought me a wellfurnished house’. Somebody else said he had got their village temple renovated and others mentioned medical bills that were quietly paid. A lot of people told me, ‘Reliance shares took care of us and we keep the shares in remembrance of him’.
I learnt about all these things only after his death. It was a big lesson for me—helping others and not saying a word about it. In my 50 years with him, things that I learnt from him have become an inseparable part of my life.
Favourite foreign destinations
I love Switzerland for the lovely landscape. I like the Swiss, too, but I do face problems over food and language. My second favourite destination is the UK, London especially. The UK is also endowed with natural beauty and poses no food or language problem.
I have admired two things about foreigners. Their cleanliness and discipline. When I return from such visits, I often wonder about our pilgrimage centres set in places with natural beauty. Why can’t we provide and maintain basic amenities like clean rooms?
What makes a woman Lakshmi?
When you visit a house and find it spick and span, you cannot but commend the lady of the house. If children from a house are well-behaved, we credit their mother. Yes, running the family is a collective responsibility, but it is a fact that the wife’s responsibilities will always be greater. Children are always closer to their mother. Invariably, the first question they ask upon entering the house is ‘Where is mom?’
What makes a woman Lakshmi? It is love, politeness and humility that make a woman Lakshmi. Such women keep their family happy, healthy and dignified. A mother is a success, if she can teach her children wisdom, tolerance, generosity, patience and responsibility towards the family.
On running India’s richest household
I believe in doing everything with 100 per cent involvement, and doing it perfect. It does not matter if it is a Diwali celebration or a marriage anniversary party, I believe in planning ahead for everything.
Duties are given to different staff members in accordance with their capacities, but I will ensure that everything is done on time and perfectly. Later, I give my personal touch to everything. If we oversee the work ourselves, it will be done properly. And it is not right to leave it to them and later pick fault.
On today’s women
Today, women’s roles have changed and, obviously, the change will reflect in her life and personality. Earlier, a woman’s world was confined to her house. But no corner of the world is alien to today’s women. Send her to any corner of the world, and she will create her own house there.
I like today’s women’s confidence. I would like to adopt their self-confidence and their passion to keep pace with the times. Her time management is amazing! See how she attends to her job, family, house, children and herself.
Beauty and healthIf you want to look beautiful, you ought to remain fit and healthy. Dhirubhai was conscious of his health and would ask me to take care of my health. I have been doing yoga for years. As a rule, I walk for 30 minutes every day. I take juices and fruits in the morning and meditate for mental strength. Perhaps, these are the reasons for my composure during any crisis!