Business tradition was set when the British pulled out

Like everything else in India, every tale has its tradition.

Business, they say, began when men, driven by the urge to make money, left tired homefronts with a ''lota'' and ''dore'' - the water pail and the rope - two of the objects most essential to their survival. In almost the same way, the forefathers of Harishankar Singhania left Singhana, a village in the desert of Rajasthan, little known except to those who lived in it or around it.

Few among their descendants really know the detailed fabric of life that made these men from Singhana. They were perhaps petty shopkeepers and moneylenders in the tradition of the ''banyas,'' a community whose ethos was spurned by money.

Leaving depleted landscapes in the middle of the last century, they found their way into the growing townships, never to look back. Soon they were supplying raw materials, providing finance and trading in jute, cotton, and tea, and forging links between the Indian farmer and the invincible British trader.

With the national movement came a new awareness, new challenges. Indian industry that had escaped the industrial revolution in its time slowly began to awaken. By the year 1918 the men from Singhana had already set up a cotton mill, a jute mill, a flour mill, and some sugar industries. Then came the partition of India and with it a vacuum. The British left. Men who had gathered money and experience as traders and financiers stepped in. Established industrial units were bought, new ones were set up with indigenous capital, labor, and management skills.

Among the men who carried the torch were Lala Juggilal and Kamlapat Singhania , to whom the J. K. Organisation, the fourth-largest industrial house in India, owes its beginnings. Harishankar Singhania, who heads the organization today, is the third generation in this line of scions.

Harishankar does not wear the Rajasthani headgear which Kamlapat, his grandfather, did. Nor does he sport the ferocious mustache that distinguished the old man and his spirit. ''He was a strong-willed man with a tremendous drive and determination,'' says Harishankar of his grandfather. ''He was not an educated man, but he had the desire to learn and train himself as he went along. He tried to achieve what he had set his mind to do.

''Humiliated in one of his encounters with the British, he set up a cotton textile mill as far back as the year 1921. During the freedom struggle, when he was approached by Motilal Nehru (father of Jawaharlal) and asked to boycott foreign goods, he not only stopped his import of cotton cloth from Lancashire, but even set fire to a stock of it. And that was his main business at that time. I wonder if, faced with the same situation, I will have the moral courage to do what he did.''

But then Harishankar does not live in the time his grandfather did. There is a purity, almost a fierce freshness, about a world when it is opening its eyes to freedom. Kamlapat, along with a nation, was awakening to the concept of a country he could call his own. It was a time of charged ideals and of men who had the zeal to fight and reach them. The urge to make money has been a primeval instinct. In times past, however, it was tempered by faith and a belief in the ''giver.''

Working to earn money was considered a man's ''dharma,'' his divine duty. That lent his life a quality of contentment, of humility, even a sense of mission.

The story of a grocer named Chhago Ram sums up in a poignant way the spirit of the Indian business tradition. In a small town in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Chhago Ram ran a tiny shop of grains and provisions. His seat was a gunny bag; his shop site, a spot of shade under an old banyan tree. He would come early in the morning, sweep the space, set up shop, and stay all day, taking time off for lunch and siesta. At the end of a long day he would have hardly earned a few rupees, since most of his business was conducted on credit.

Why did Chhago Ram continue? ''I am the grocer of the community. I should always be on call,'' he would say. He had a role in the community and a commitment to it. The community in turn considered him its responsibility. Can the economy of today contain a man like Chhago Ram? It perhaps can, if it stays alive as a mixed economy, sustaining businesses big and small, generating people and energy, nurturing qualities that help a community and a society endure.

Some of these qualities still cling to Harishankar, though he has come a long way from the days of the ''lota'' and ''dore.'' He lives in a house distinctive in its opulence. Amid the deep velvet furniture, the gleaming inlays in wood, the china, the porcelain, and the shimmering chandeliers moves a fragile, white-haired lady dressed in white cotton.

She is his mother. Her presence strikes a balance, makes the opulence recede as if it is meant to be a backdrop. The essentials of her life lie elsewhere - in the god that mystifies and surrounds her and in the experience of having lived and learned. She remembers the days when she remained behind a veil like all women of her generation. But she was alert and alive to the energy of the household, whose rhythms were set and governed by a grandfather-in-law and a benign mother-in-law.

The family was large, but grew up as one. The meals were shared at one table. The children ate with the elders, learning naturally the way of the family and of the business. Values that came naturally to a generation of men are beginning to flounder in a world where man stands poised against time and against a system that has grown too big and complex to contain his original spirit.

Today Harishankar presides over an industrial empire employing 40,000 men in more than 30 units. Contentment for him no longer lies in meeting an individual challenge, nor in setting up one more plant or two. Survival now rests on a grander scale, in constant growth, change, and expansion - not just to grow big but to be better and different. Like his grandfather, who would stay around the clock while a plant was being built, Harishankar works long hours. And like his father he believes that ''a genius is made of 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.''

Child of the traditional Indian joint family, he no longer lives in a household that once contained a clan. Though the roof has scattered, the business has not. As head of the business and family, he works aggressively to keep alive the spirit of the joint family that was initially responsible for nurturing and reinforcing the ideals of entrepreneurship. The Singhania men continue to head the family businesses, guarding jealously the discipline and ethos of the J.K. name.

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