This is Dynasty, Indian-style

It's Bombay's 'royal' wedding, but this particular billionaire family doesn't like the limelight, writes Tim McGirk
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In Bombay, the gossips are working overtime to find out how much the billionaire Hinduja family, the ninth richest family in Britain, is blowing on the marriage of three of its sons. It is a topic that seldom finds its way into the newspapers: the Hindujas are as secretive as they are influential.

"I've heard rumours about just how much they are spending just on flowers, but I can't print them," complains one reporter. "If I did, the Hindujas would get on to me."

On the rare occasions that they agree to give an interview to the press, the Hindujas can write their own conditions. After one journalist was allowed to speak with one of the four brothers - Srichand ("Mr SP"), Gopichand ("Mr GP"), Prakash, and Ashok - the reporter had to delete the seemingly inoffensive detail that the interview had taken place in a room with a chandelier and a Persian carpet. The brothers wield a great deal of influence, both in India and in Britain, where they are often guests at Downing Street. The Hindujas are known to have recruited a former British minister to request one magazine editor not to run a critical profile of their empire.

Customarily, weddings are a time for Indian families to splash out lavishly and publicly, and the Hindujas have had to swallow their discretion and oblige. The wedding, at the Royal Western India Turf Club on 15 January, will be limited to the Hindujas' 10,000 most intimate friends, that is to say anyone who counts in India.

"They've invited everybody, every government minister in Delhi and in India's 26 states, every member of parliament and state assemblyman, journalists, and many, many industrialists," says Rajiv Bajaj, editor of the Daily in Bombay. "They're trying to promote goodwill." And with politicians facing an expensive campaign for next April's general elections, most are anxious to befriend the Hindujas. More than 500 rooms in Bombay's ritziest hotels have been booked for the guests, who have flown in from London, Geneva, the Gulf, and the Far East.

Wedding invitations sent by Indian moguls tend to be flashy: they are encrusted with silver and gilt and play a cheery electronic tune when the envelope is opened. The card sent by the Hindujas is tasteful and discreet. The invitation comes with a 48-page booklet with quotations from the Vedas. Every invitee received an unadorned card, and at the bottom it says in small letters: No gifts please! It should have added: Because we're billionaires!

Marrying off three sons at once is not exactly an economy measure for the Hindujas. It's to be egalitarian. The Hindujas believe in sharing equally among family members. Though some of the brothers reside in Britain, the family are originally from Sindh, now part of southern Pakistan. They made their first fortune in Iran, dubbing Hindi films into Persian. In a rare interview, Srichand, the eldest brother and head of the empire, once remarked: "All the houses belong to everybody, all the cars belong to everybody. There is no 'this is mine, this is yours'. We have kept one kitty." Mr SP and Mr GP run the British end of operations; Prakash manages the financial side in Geneva; the youngest, Ashok, oversees their Indian interests - oil, motors, telecommunications, chemicals, and power plants. The brothers are all conservative, vegetarian and teetotallers who are said to be inseparable. When one or several are out of town, they spend up to two hours a day with each other on telephone conference calls.

With India's economic reforms, which have done away with red tape and some state monopolies, the Hindujas are pouncing on new business opportunities. Many observers think they are using the wedding extravaganza as a way to launch themselves. But some see the Hindujas as arrivistes.

"I've met the Hindujas, but they're not that well-known in Bombay," Shoba De, the city's bestselling novelist, comments archly. "I keep getting them mixed up. They remind me of those Russian dolls where you open one up and there's another one, identical, inside. It must be the black suits and glasses the Hinduja brothers all wear." Shoba De will not be at the Hindujas' wedding. "I don't attend circuses," she sniffs.

For many Indian industrialist families, an arranged marriage is a chance to build ties with other dynasties and expand the empire. But acquaintances of the Hindujas say the brothers were wary of fixing high-powered marriages for their sons that might let other tycoons encroach on their territory. One bride-to-be, Namrata Mulchandani, aged 22, is the daughter of a Bombay textile exporter, while the parents of another, Sona Bhojwani, are steel exporters in Nigeria.

In one of the few articles on the wedding to appear in India, the daily Indian Express reported that these two marriages were arranged by the parents (after consulting horoscopes) while the third - between Mr GP's son, Dheeraj, and Shalini Chandiramani, daughter of a film distributor in Morocco - was for love. Dheeraj and Shalini met while studying at Imperial College in London. "The fact that it's a love marriage seems to show that the Hindujas are loosening up a bit on the younger family members," said one Delhi editor who knows the clan.

It was not always so. In May 1992, Dharam, the 22-year-old son of Srichand, died in what the coroner in London, Michael Bevan, described as "a suicide pact" with an Anglo-Indian woman he had secretly married. "It would appear previously expressed objections to the marriage on behalf of the Hinduja family prevented the couple from living together," said the coroner. After fleeing from his family to Mauritius, Dharam set himself on fire in a cheap boarding house. His bride, who was tied up, managed to wriggle free and escape the blaze.

Srichand refuses to accept that his son committed suicide because of family pressure. "I cannot say that in our family one is not allowed to live and operate the way he or she wants," he has said.

When a Hinduja daughter was married in Bombay four years ago, it was one of the glitziest weddings the city had seen, with hired yachts and a laser show that raked the skyline. Acquaintances said that the death of Srichand's son had contributed to making this three-way wedding a more sober affair, even if it is for India's top 10,000 people.