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Friday, Dec 09, 2022

From Pilani and Calcutta to Chandigarh: A life of work and social service

"One day I took my father’s car to Sodepur ashram where Gandhiji was camping. I had heard that after his walk, he would collect money for Harijan fund by signing his pictures that were available for Rs 5 a copy," says Rajendra K Saboo

Rajendra K Saboo

Written by Rajendra K Saboo

When the World War II started raging in 1940, I was at Birlapur, where my father, Shri Tarachandji Saboo was a manager of Birla Jute Mills. The army surounded our bungalow and the situation was grim. My siblings and I were evacuated and packed off to our native place Pilani. I vividly remember the train journey from Calcutta to Delhi and from there on a narrow-gauge to Loharu. Our destination was the small station at Rampura Ber where the train stopped for barely five minutes on a cold wintry day. From there, a camel cart took four hours to travel across undulating sand dunes before depositing us at our haveli in Pilani.

I did my Class III and IV at Pilani in a haveli with no electricity but plenty of lanterns. I had my first taste of the freedom movement in 1942 when Gandhiji launched his Quit India movement and was arrested. I remember how older students scaled the gate of our school to support this movement. I was too tiny to follow them but thanks to my grandmother, I got a tricolour made and started chanting, “Vande Maataram” and “Gandhiji ki Jai”. Soon, about 100 children and adults joined me.

My tryst with Gandhi

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In early 1944, we returned to Birlapur where I studied from Class V to VIII. One day I took my father’s car to Sodepur ashram where Gandhiji was camping. I had heard that after his walk, he would collect money for Harijan fund by signing his pictures that were available for Rs 5 a copy. I stood with three pictures but as Gandhiji swiftly strode across the line, he autographed only one. I protested to the volunteers, on hearing the commotion Gandhiji called me. I told him, “Sir, I had paid for three photographs, but only one was signed”. He asked, “Are you speaking the truth?” I said, “Yes”. He autographed the remaining two photos with a personal message, ‘Bapu ne aashirwad’. From that day on, I have always embraced truth in my life.

After a promotion, my father moved to the corporate headquarters of the Birlas in Kolkata and I was admitted to a school in the metro. My father told me that I had to go for an interview at St. Xavier’s, a reputed English-medium school. I remember entering the premises somewhat nervous. A man in a white gown with a long flowing grey beard greeted me very gently. He wanted to know my age. Flustered, I blurted, “12 o’clock” instead of 12 years and he laughed. I thought I had flunked but instead I was admitted to the school. Maybe he took this raw, uncouth youngster as a challenge. Eventually, Father Van Buynder, a Jesuit priest, became my mentor and made me who I am.

After completing graduation in 1953, I joined Hindustan Motors on my father’s direction. I also met B.M. Birla, and started working at the headquarters in Kolkata. It was under him that I grasped all the facets of the accounting system. By the time I left the Birlas to start my own enterprise in 1957, I had mastered the science of factory management. On finding tremendous demand for the knitting needle machine, I, along with my father and father-in-law D.P. Mandelia entered into a collaboration with the market leader Groz-Beckert in Germany. I began negotiating with them in 1959, and we finally inked an agreement in April 1962.

Chandigarh and Sardar Kairon

It was this collaboration that brought me to Chandigarh in 1960. My preferred location was Faridabad, but it did not have adequate electricity for industry. So I got an appointment with then Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Partap Singh Kairon. As I entered his office, I felt a vibration of positivity. I told him about my desire to set up the factory, and that I needed adequate electricity. He said, “I will give you power anywhere you want (Faridabad was then part of Punjab). But I would suggest that you consider Chandigarh.” This was the essence of our 15-minute-long meeting. And I promised to revert after consulting my German collaborators.

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Within a fortnight I returned to Chandigarh to meet CM Kairon and tell him that my collaborators had accepted his suggestion. He was pleased and immediately arranged an official car for me to go around the Industrial Area and select the plot/site. The long and short of it was that Sardar Partap Singh Kairon developed an affection for me, and Chandigarh became my karam bhoomi.

In 1960, I, my wife Usha and our two-year-old elder son Yashovardhan came to Chandigarh and rented a small two-room house in Sector 5. We would spend the weekends driving around to look for a bigger property to take on rent. Finally, we chose one in Sector 4. In the meantime, we also purchased a plot in Sector 5, and shifted to our own house in 1968, where we have been living ever since.

Usha, who was from Gwalior where her parents had a sprawling garden, had a green thumb. Soon she was completely at home in the city, as she went about growing a bounty of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. The flower show organised in Chandigarh saw Usha’s entries grabbing the first prizes. She continued her winning streak for several years, as others would withdraw theirs as soon as her entries came in. Later, Usha stopped her competitive admissions and started sharing her seeds, bulbs and knowledge with other garden lovers.

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When we came to Chandigarh, a planned city, it had a population of only 75,000. The social milieu was such that almost everyone knew everyone; the High Court judges, civil servants, lawyers, and businesspeople, they knew each other. There were few industrialists though.

The city and M S Randhawa

In 1966, Punjab was divided into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal. Chandigarh became a Union Territory administered by the Centre, and Dr M. S. Randhawa was apppointed its first Chief Commissioner. I called on him and invited him to our new house for a meal. He promised to drop by for a cup of tea. True to his words, he came to our house, and appreciated many of its features. I told him, “Sir, the Chief Architect has objected to all that you have praised.” He asked me to come to his office the next day. I did that, and with one stroke of his pen, he approved all the objections.

Usha joined the voluntary blood donation initiated by. Kanta Saroop Kishen. Soon Chandigarh was the first city which had only voluntary donations and no drop of blood had to be bought.

Since I live near the Sukhna lake, I go there for a walk every morning. Apart from keeping me fit, this early morning sojourn is also my window to the prople around me.

The City Beautiful was planned to be an administrative city but it has grown into much more. Today it’s a centre of education, culture, and health.

First published on: 03-10-2022 at 07:57:26 am
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