Industrialist Siddharth Shriram's zest for life: A son remembers

Topics Usha International | golf | Politics

Initially intent on being a journalist, founding a magazine called Angles, it was a passion that remained for life
My father was born in the Dilli of 1945; a grandson of Raja Jwala Prasad and Lala Shriram, and son of Sumitra Charat Ram and Lala Charat Ram – a unique confluence of families at a special time in India. These families contributed to the civil services, academia, arts and culture, industrialisation, business and philanthropy; all believed they had a civil contract with society. To serve and to serve well.

Born in the Shriram clan with the proverbial gold spoon, he was by all accounts, including his, the cutest, sweetest, cherubic brown baby and was appropriately nicknamed “Chikoo”. Much loved, he and his cousins had an idyllic childhood. Once, they were taken for a picnic in the hills and after a jolly good time they realised their parents had left, and they found they were enrolled in Welhams, a preparatory boarding school. Fait accompli; they were 6 years old.

Moving on to Doon School from Welhams and subsequently, St Stephen’s College in Delhi, he was part of a herd of happy people who swept through these institutions collectively from very early ages through to college, creating a network of friendships that had a depth and longevity few of us can imagine today.

Initially intent on being a journalist, founding a magazine called <Angles>, it was a passion that remained for life. His father, however, insisted on an engineering education, which began with a stint at BITS Pilani, notable for its brevity for reasons unknown. So his father sent him to McGill University, again for a technical education. Far from India and independent, he switched his course to divinity and the comparative study of religions; I think his father was by this point more amused than annoyed.

Siddharth Shriram

As he progressed into the mantle of business in a multi-generational system, he felt constrained and decamped with his charming wife Roula and two young brats, Chhaya and Krishna, to MIT in Boston to study business administration at the Sloan School. An independent leap taken while perhaps not knowing at the time how closely Charat Ram, his father, was connected to the institution! Full technical scholarships were set up subsequently for underprivileged men and women at MIT, one in his father’s name. May they stand the test of time.

He later joined Citibank, initially at its training institute in Athens and then in Dubai, which at that time, the 1970s, was considered a hardship posting. There was no hardship, though, but the bank did send the family on a round the world trip every year to compensate: Machu Picchu in Peru, safaris in Kenya, the pyramids of Egypt… We as kids were shown the world before our teens and, of course, India every year. When he decided to return to India, Citibank kept the door open for his return, perhaps to run its training centre – a clue to his performance as a manager; this was a job he would have loved.

His return to India was to help his family in difficult times in 1983. He played a constructive role in the split of DCM by all accounts, but also in the counselling of other business families to separate in an amicable manner.

Much like his father, he was keen on introducing cutting-edge technology and ensuring its absorption in India, resulting in a spate of joint ventures/technology transfers/long-term agreements with American, European and Japanese companies; not to cater to existing tastes but to serve the market with quality and evolving technology, which is a common theme today. Chairing most of these companies through their growing period, he was a friend to his partners, and always appreciated.

My father was interested in politics in the early 1990s as an instrument of economic development but his attitude changed accomplishing what he could around his industrial clusters and businesses: <Khabar ghars>, or village libraries, for people to be aware of what was going on through the dissemination of newspapers and magazines along with non-formal literacy programmes around his Mawana sugar factories; the Usha Sillai Schools, which train and give a machine and marketing collaterals to women in rural India to enable their self-employment, built around Usha’s sewing machine business which exists in every state in India. He was happy with the concept of a corporate social responsibility policy in India and hoped it would be well-implemented.

A writer on a wide variety of issues as a result of his interest in creating constructive debate for challenges facing India, he was instrumental in founding Delhi Policy Group, a think tank that focuses on providing policy options to the government on a range of issues. He was proud of the organisation and the reputation and respect it has developed through its work. May this, too, stand the test of time.

Siddharth Shriram

He was a golfer, or rather golf was him. In Dubai, where the fairways were sand in the ’70s, he would ask me to read Jack Nicklaus’s book on the golf swing, pay me some pocket money for dragging (on wheels) his bag through the sand as his caddy, and tell him what he was doing wrong compared to Jack’s advice. He called it character-building stuff for me.

His love of the game and its promotion led him to be the head of the PGA (Professional Golfers' Association) of India but more importantly, the journalist despatched by this illustrious publication to cover the Masters. They wrote to me: “Mr Shriram spent many years attending the Masters and bringing the Masters to life for his many fans. He will be missed by all of us at the Augusta National Golf Course.” He would be and probably is in journalistic bliss. A note also came from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

His second great golfing love was the Delhi Golf Course where he served as president. From the course to the monuments and plants, he had ideas for everything. Junior training programmes, ladies tournaments, a welfare trust for caddies and a deep desire to set up a tournament like the Masters in India at the DGC for which he has left an essay titled, “The Masters; the DGC; similarities, fantasies, visions, Let’s see...” Que sera sera, whatever will be will be...

Buzzing with ideas, he took up painting later in life with a passion, travelling around the world to different settings to learn. I was amazed at the quality but Jeanne, his teacher’s words, say it best: “When he first came to the studio, he seemed shocked and amazed that he could not paint like me after two days, but by curiosity and persistence, his ability and understanding grew in leaps and bounds.”

For all he has done as a well-rounded Indian, I called him a true Shriram. But for the ducking and bobbing and weaving through trials and errors, he left his environment in peace, comfort and serenity. By achieving his signature space and achievement with a smile and for his unblemished soul, perhaps he should be called a true Krishna.

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