At 89, Lahore’s best-known industrialist, Syed Babar Ali, has issued his autobiography that he probably began in 1986. He calls it “Learning from Others”, in a gesture of self-effacement to conform to the wisdom he often expresses through a terse “I don’t want to be remembered”. His works will contradict him. He will be remembered for Lahore’s two landmark establishments, Packages Ltd and Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
Born in 1926 in a family that began with a modest shop in Lahore’s inner city, he came of age when his father was one of the top contractors to the British Indian army, travelling with regiments, providing them with logistics and supplies. Most contractors in those days got paid in real estate, or the money thus earned was spent on buying land. This applied to the Muratib Ali clan, as Babar Ali’s family was known, which was not yet savvy in finance. But the land came in handy later when they started setting up factories. What the Raj taught them was a strong work ethic.
His father married into the Faqirkhana family of Lahore, famous as ministers at the court of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Babar Ali’s mother had royal Afghan blood and brought her Persian literary taste into the clan. The nexus with the Sikh darbar secured for Babar Ali his best friend in life, Harcharan Singh Brar, at Lahore’s prestigious Aitchison College. Brar was to become chief minister of Indian Punjab.
Gandhi was the great all-India inspiration and it touched Babar’s friend too: “In 1941, my friend Harcharan wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, who was on a fast unto death in jail, that he was praying for his life and he fully supported his cause. The letter was intercepted by the CID and sent back to Principal Mr Barry… Harcharan said, ‘Yes, I wrote to Mahatma Gandhi.’ Mr Barry said, ‘You are a student here, you should not be bothered by these things. You should concentrate on your studies. Politics will come later.’”
Babar Ali, a supporter of Jinnah, didn’t see any contradiction in these divided loyalties and has never accepted the Indo-Pak conflict as a permanent feature of life: “From the very beginning, Harcharan was an Indian nationalist, and he knew that I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Muslim League and Pakistan, but that did not dampen our friendship.” But the Hindu fellow-Aitchisonian he admired was Romesh Thapar. Romesh was probably the best columnist India was to see after 1947; his sister Romila Thapar was to be India’s great historian, admired equally in Pakistan because she never allowed history to be tainted by nationalism.
Perhaps reacting to the taunt of a “contractor’s son” by the local elite, Babar Ali did well in studies, especially maths and science, while performing in all sports with distinction, especially riding, which took him to polo till his age wouldn’t allow it any more. He went for higher studies to Michigan University at Ann Arbor, and later had occasion to do courses at Harvard, too, learning business all the time.
He hero-worshipped his elder brothers, Syed Amjad Ali and Syed Wajid Ali, and got an early leg-up from them, setting up cotton and oil factories in Punjab and Sindh, till he met another man he learned to admire, Ruben Rausing of Sweden, who ran the pioneering packaging industry of Europe. Babar Ali was actually going to Finland to buy furniture for his house in Karachi when he called on him in Stockholm to discuss Rausing’s offer of a new packing for the Treet blade Babar was making in Hyderabad, Sindh. The friendship that developed involved families on both sides. And when Babar Ali went fundraising for LUMS, the Rausings were among the top contributors Babar Ali “touched”.
Syed Babar Ali is a Drucker’s “non-confrontational winner” in the business world. However, when he bites into something he doesn’t let go and “bats till the last ball is bowled”. He looks after fading literary geniuses and teachers, and does a lot of other charity work without being noticed. A back-of-the-book couplet from Saadi says: “My companions’ virtues elevated me/ Otherwise I am the same humble creature that I was.”
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