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For the sepia and not the gold
Debut novelist Yasmeen Premji talks about writing, backpacking, designing buildings - and why she's unaffected by the mountain of money her family has.
When very rich people say they don't really care about their wealth or when debut authors say that they have written their book for themselves and not for popular acclaim, it sounds too pious to be true. Until you meet Yasmeen Premji, wife of Wipro chairman Azim Premji, ranked by Forbes as the 41st richest man on the planet and the third richest person in India, worth a cool $16 billion. When she says, "I wrote the book for myself, " or that the Wipro billions are "not a part of my life", she sounds sincere.
Although Yasmeen Premji has lived in Bangalore for over a decade now, very little is known about her. She has deliberately maintained a low profile. A fleeting presence spotted occasionally at an art event or a play, this smiling, soft-spoken woman has been content to stay in the shadows unlike the spouses of the city's other software moguls.
Why then would someone so retiring 'out' herself at 65 ? Why go from being an intensely private person to one doing multi-city book launches, taking questions from the media and the public about things personal and professional? Yasmeen has a simple answer: she's always wanted to write a book, it's just that it's taken her 20 years to get Days of Gold & Sepia done. "I am obviously very laidback, a master of procrastination, " she smiles. "That's the only reason. " Tell her how good she was at her launch in Bangalore where she was introduced by a suave Girish Karnad - reading excerpts, taking questions, ad-libbing with the crowd and matching Karnad one-liner for one-liner - and she admits with a laugh, "Even I was surprised at how comfortable I was. "
She says she has no agenda. "I haven't tried to be anything. It's only when you try to be something or have to live up to something that there's a problem. "
She's always wanted to write, and in her teens she wrote a few short stories that were published. She joined Inside Outside magazine as an assistant editor not merely because she loved design but also because she wanted to keep her writing skills alive. "You lose most skills if you don't keep abreast with them, " she says.
The immediate provocation for Days of Gold & Sepia was a story she wrote 20 years ago which, to her surprise, wasn't accepted unlike her earlier efforts. She decided to make it part of something bigger, later.
When her father died 20 years ago, "we were all sitting around and stories came out. I grew up with a lot of stories. Lots of people of our generation did, talking to aunts, talking to older family members. I found it fascinating. Thought, why don't I put it together? Half my life is gone;it's time to bestir myself. "
There has been speculation that the protagonist of the book, Lalljee Lakha, is modeled on Azim Premji's father. Yasmeen dismisses it saying, "It's nobody's story. Lalljee Lakha is my own, someone whom I wouldn't have minded meeting. "
The rags-to-riches saga about Lakha starts with his early life as a penniless Kutchi orphan who is adopted but later abandoned by a wealthy family. He leaves Kutch for Bombay where he amasses great wealth as the city's Cotton King. The novel straddles the decades between 1857 and the 1947, and is full of colourful, lively characters. Some, like the sisters Zareena and Shireen, are drawn from real life.
She picked this plot, she says, because Bombay has many such stories that remain untold. "I realised there hadn't been one in fiction, and such a character would reflect the stories of many people who came to Bombay. " Some of the people in the book were friends of her parents or grandparents. Other stories are family stories that's she worked into her narrative. The two sisters, Zareena and Shireen, for instance, were family.
She grew up in Bombay - it's never Mumbai - in what she calls "softer times". "It wasn't a maximum city, it wasn't a maximum time. " Yasmeen Chinoy was captain of the school (Queen Mary) hockey team. As she constantly fiddles with her hair through the interview, she says wryly, "I have a picture of me doing this on the hockey field 50 years ago. " She went on to lead the hockey teams at St Xavier's and Mumbai University before heading off to Smith College in the US on a scholarship for her Master's.
Once that was done, she backpacked through Europe for a year and half. In a casual, 'please don't make a big deal of this' voice, she tries to convince us that most Indian middle-class girls of that era did the same. "My parents were very sane. It was a conventional but not a conservative family. Nobody thought what I was doing was outrageous at all, " she says. "It was not extraordinary. Nothing about me is extraordinary. It is a way of how you look at things. "
When you point out that nobody now seems to be that adventurous, she retorts that it's because "they don't want to work hard at anything, including playing".
Her budget was $5 a day. "Youth hostels in those days were around a dollar a night. Sometimes I had no money. In Paris once I ate peanuts for lunch. You get by because life is such fun and you don't have to have everything, " she says. On her return, she worked for Esso (now Hindustan Petroleum) as a personnel supervisor. Marriage and kids followed and Wipro went from being a seller of vegetable oil and soap to a topnotch IT services company. The family moved to Bangalore in the late nineties.
How did she take the move from Bombay to the - at the time - far more sedate Bangalore ? "The idea in life is to take things as they come, " she says with trademark matterof-factness. "It saves a lot of the energy for things that you want to do instead of battling all the time. I was okay with it. I knew that it was important and necessary. " She likes Bangalore now, the people, the culture, the softer, gentler life. It reminds her of the people she knew when she was young in Bombay.
Home, to her, is where her books are. Earlier they were split between Bombay and Bangalore. Now they are all in the latter. "When I realized that I had moved most of my books here, I knew I had started thinking of Bangalore as home, " she says.
Her novel is dedicated to her mother Shah Chinoy, mother-in-law Dr Gulbanoo Premji and her grandkids, Rhea and Rohan. The two women were huge influences in her life. "I enjoyed them more than anything else, " she says. "They were solid, sane people. They tried to do the best they could, like the women in my book. " Nobody in the family was aware that she was writing a novel. Only after it was accepted by a publisher did she tell her husband and kids. She wrote the book "for the sepia and not the gold".
It's impossible not to ask the new author about the family's enormous wealth. While hers is definitely not a rags-to-riches story like that of Lakha, going from uppermiddle class to billionaire-rich is still a ride. She is neither fazed nor defensive about the money mountain. According to her, "The money has not changed me. It has nothing to do with my life. " How can that be, you press. Yasmeen replies with quiet insistence, "It not a part of my life. It has not empowered me. I don't think about it. "
A moment later, she relents: "I wouldn't be na�ve or foolish and say money doesn't matter. What I am trying to say is, I already had most of the things I wanted and could adjust easily to the things I didn't have. I always feel if you don't want more than what you have, you can never be poor. I am not in a circle that pressurizes me to want more. I am brand blind. "
She's clear that the wealth is her husband's and that he should decide what to do with it. So is it clear that most of it will go to charity? "He (Azim Premji) may be clear. " In fact, her big problem while writing the book was that she really didn't know how people made such huge amounts of money. When she asked others how wealth was amassed in the days of sepia, the pat answer was "trading". Like an aunt whose grandfather went to Africa at 16 and came back five years later with a million pound sterling.
Yasmeen's other abiding interest is design. Although she hasn't studied it - she believes you don't have to be a trained architect to design - her love for all things natural - stones, bricks, wood - is amply evident in the display of artefacts at the Azim Premji Foundation office in Bangalore, which she has designed. A follower of Laurie Baker's down-to-earth design philosophy, she has designed many of the Premjis' weekend homes. But, she adds self-deprecatingly, she's learned a thing or two about architecture along the way. "When I designed my first building, the bemused engineer working with me asked, 'But Mrs Premji, how does one get to the terrace?'" She had forgotten to put in a staircase.
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