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Freelance journalist from Bombay

Ambani: The untold stories

Ambanis & the media
Writing samples

Dhirubhai Ambani and the stories that need telling

BY Sucheta Dalal

Why aren't there more accurate biographies about Indian leaders? Or rather, why are Indian biographies usually worshipful eulogies of their subjects? The answer probably lies in the fate of Hamish McDonald's book on Dhirubhai Ambani titled The Polyester Prince.

Usually biographies in India are commissioned works -- sanitised and censored. As McDonald says -- 'No one (the subject of the biographies) drank, cursed, cheated or philandered. Their workers were part of the      family. Almost everyone lived an abstemious vegetarian life, accumulating       wealth only to give it away to temples, hospitals and schools.'

That is indeed true. Forget about biographies, Indian journalists are      normally very reticent about being critical unless their subject is caught in a scam or a scandal. Independent biographies do not pay because publishers claim that the market is too small to cover research, marketing and publicity costs.

Newspaper groups too are uninterested in helping their journalists in      doing detailed reportage into books. Hamish McDonald's experience with his      book on Dhirubhai Ambani -- one of India's most controversial      industrialists -- is a good example of what would happen to authors who      dare to be frank and independent.

Published in 1998, the book is still not available in Indian bookshops because the Ambanis have threatened legal action for anything they perceive as defamatory in the book. This ban of sorts has, in fact, increased the curiosity value of the book. A small but steady stream of books continues to be brought into India from friends or relatives living abroad. Those who know of its existence want to buy/borrow or photocopy it. In fact, the book probably made it to print only because the publishers -- Allen & Unwin -- are Australian and decided to take a chance selling the book outside India.
Why should Reliance work overtime to block the book? After all, the author, a senior journalist, was the Delhi bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review for several years, and had written a responsible and painstakingly researched account that respects Ambani's undoubted genius but is candid about his ethics and methods. Also, I know about Hamish's persistent efforts to get the Ambanis to co-operate with its writing. He sent birthday greetings to the Ambanis and even tried to soften Kokilaben Ambani (Dhirubhai's wife) by presenting her with a copy of a rare art book, which he thought would interest her. There was neither a reply nor acknowledgement.

Sources close to the Ambanis bluntly say the first book about Dhirubhai will be a pretty, airbrushed hagiography in the style of those published by all major industry houses.

The Polyester Prince is an accurate portrait of one of the most colourful, controversial and brilliant of Indian businessmen, who converted into an      art; the bending and twisting of the stifling license-permit system to his advantage. It traces his humble beginnings at Chorwad in Gujarat to being in the Forbes list of the world's richest men.

As McDonald says in the book, 'Everything about the Ambanis, in fact, was a good magazine story.' If Anil Ambani's stormy courtship of Tina Munim, whom Hamish describes as 'a girl with a past' has all the ingredients of a Bollywood potboiler, then the saga of Dhirubhai's rise to being among the most powerful men in India is significantly more dramatic and awesome.

There is the fight-to-the-finish battle with Ramnath Goenka -- the fiery and fearless proprietor of the Indian Express; then the war with industrialist Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing; the much publicised allegations against some Ambani staffers over a plot to murder Wadia; Reliance's travails during the V P Singh government, which almost brought the business house to its knees, and sundry other controversies over licensed capacities, export manipulation and share switching. It also narrates how Reliance created the equity cult which got the general public investing in equity and investors' reciprocal adulation for the man for over a decade.

McDonald uses his skill as a journalist to paint an accurate picture and to bring in the unsavory aspects of Reliance's dealing with business rivals without attracting charges of defamation. The book candidly traces Dhirubhai's uncanny knack of tweaking and capturing political and bureaucratic power -- Ambani's equation with Indira Gandhi and her family and their powerful minions, as well as the suitcases of cash which Indian business houses used to engineer changes in tariffs and duties for specific products. At the same time, McDonald finally portrays Dhirubhai as a visionary with unconventional ways of fulfilling his mega plans.

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