Generous spirits, secretive souls

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The Independent Online
The Hinduja brothers have come to the rescue of Peter Mandelson and his Millennium Dome. Last Wednesday, the eldest of them, Srichand Hinduja, announced that they would underwrite the pounds 6m cost of the Spirit Zone, the religious segment of the Dome in Greenwich that has prompted so much sectarian argument and which, until the Hindujas stepped forward, had failed to find funding.

Mr Hinduja said on Radio 4's Today programme that his family, who are devout Hindus, believed that "multicultural misunderstanding is the biggest issue in the world... Hindus or Christians, we're all human beings". An editorial in this newspaper wondered if their generous act showed how the Hindu Hindujas - unlike the Christian churches - "still feel that spirituality is worth investing in".

I am sure they do. The Hinduja brothers - Srichand, Gopichand, Prakash and Ashok - are all firm believers in concepts such as fate and duty, and they obey the rites of the orthodox. They do not smoke or touch alcohol or meat; their homes and offices have many statues of the Hindu gods; when their womenfolk are widowed they wear white for ever after.

They have dipped into the family fortune and given large sums to many causes in Britain and India. They helped to build a magnificent Hindu temple in Neasden, north-west London. They have funded exhibitions and galleries at the Victoria & Albert - and also another large British monument, Sir Edward Heath, who in his extra-political career was paid as a consultant to their charity, the Hinduja Foundation.

On the other hand, they know that generosity has its own rewards. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and his side- kicks such as Derek Draper may imagine that they understand the relationship between money and political influence, but compared with the Hindujas they are merely little earthlings in the playful hands of the deity; promising boys who might, if they were lucky, get a job as a peon, a clerk, in one of the Hindujas' many offices.

You do not rise from a dynasty of traders in the deserts of western India without a very practical idea of how the world works, about that thing Tom Wolfe, in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, called "the favour- bank".

Many journalists have tried to penetrate the secrets of the Hinduja fortune and all of them have failed. Sometimes their pieces have been followed by retractions and apologies, especially if they mention arms deals between European companies and India (there is no evidence that the Hindujas have ever played any part in them and the brothers have always stressed that there are two world markets they would never touch: arms and meat).

The American business magazine Forbes published the longest and most ambitious investigation in 1987, which was interesting not so much for the facts it contained as the intense pre-publication lobbying aimed at suppressing them or discrediting the writer, an Indian journalist, Pranay Gupte.

Jim Michaels, the editor of Forbes at the time, told me that he had never taken "so many calls from so many different directions" that tried to influence, delay or stop the piece. Sir Edward rang twice to stress that he had no business relationship with the family other than his consultancy, but also to vouch for the fact that they were "splendid people" who should not be traduced.

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SO LET us not traduce them. A summary of the publicly available facts goes like this. The brothers have expensive homes in London, Geneva, Bombay and New York, and dozens of trading companies across the world. In India, they have interests in oil, power stations, bus and truck plants and cable television, but ownership of the means of production is a relatively recent development. Trade is the source of their money.

The Hindujas' original home lay close to the river Indus in the province of Sindh (since 1947 part of Pakistan) and centrally placed on the old overland trade routes between east and west. The brothers' father, Parmanand Hinduja, moved from there to Bombay about 1917 and started a business importing dried fruit to India from Iran and exporting tea in the other direction.

Iran soon became the main base of his operation. After tea came jute, and then films from the Bombay studios, which, when dubbed from Hindi into Farsi, proved a remarkable success with Iranian audiences. One of these films, Sangam, was a particular hit and, although the Hindujas have long since outgrown film distribution as a livelihood, the names of several of their companies still include the name Sangam as a homage to the consequent profit.

It was also in Iran that the Hindujas began to learn the craft of political patronage. They got to know the shah's family and eventually the shah. By the late Seventies, they saw themselves as brokers and intermediaries between the Iranian government and other governments, especially that of India. The son of the then Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, was often in their company.

In January 1979, India's then president, Sanjiva Reddy, felt he had to write a private letter to his prime minister, Mr Desai: "During the last visit of the Shah and the Shabanu to Delhi, various efforts were made to persuade me to give prominence to the Hinduja brothers who had come to India on that occasion. I did not think it necessary or proper for the President of India to give any undue prominence to businessmen of this kind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan [the presidential palace]. You might have been told by those in your entourage who were sponsoring the names of the Hinduja brothers of my firm refusal to have them invited to the state banquet...

"I had told you about the undesirability of a visit by Shah's sister [Ashraf, a business partner of the Hindujas] so soon after [the Shah's] visit. Was it only goodwill that was brought all the way from Iran by special aircraft?"

The shah lost his throne soon after (although the Hindujas were on equally good terms with his successors, the ayatollahs). During his reign, the Hindujas had risen from the very prosperous to the super-rich in ways that have never become clear. The oil-price hike of 1973 made Iran a rich country; there was money to spend on imports. Perhaps it is as simple as that. I asked a member of the Hinduja family about it once, and he told me, by way of example, a story about potatoes.

"There was a tremendous shortage of potatoes in the market and the people began to protest. The minister of food came to see us to ask for our help. We knew that the fields of Punjab were full of potatoes. The question was: how to get them quickly from India to Iran? Ships were too slow, so we hired lorries. Then the next question was: how to get the lorries through Pakistan to Iran? We knew that Pakistan would not accept Indians driving these lorries. So what did we do? We flew in drivers from Korea. The lorries went through. Iran got its potatoes. The minister was very happy."

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THE REASON that I know any of this is that I, too, tried to write about the Hindujas and failed. By the late Eighties, they had become the focus of immense speculation among journalists in India and increasingly among Indian journalists in Britain. The London parties they threw for Diwali, the festival of lights (which this year is happening this weekend), became famous. Baroness Thatcher and members of her cabinet appeared at them and there were lavish supplies of whisky and kebabs, not touched of course by the hosts.

At one I attended, John Major spoke and a message of congratulation from the former United States president George Bush was read out (the Hindujas had contributed to Republican funds). It was said that in terms of relations between India and Britain, the Hindujas had more influence than the Indian High Commission. The relationship between politics and business seemed blindingly clear - a transparency that (then) was unusual.

Srichand Hinduja event- ually agreed to see me and I went to his office at the top of New Zealand House. He said that with the help of friends in the Indian government he had done a little research on me, and that, among other details such as my domestic circumstances, he had discovered that I was "quite a good writer". How could he help?

Things went very quickly after that. Within minutes, Srichand had converted an interview into a proposition. Why bother with pieces for newspapers? Why not write a proper biography of the family, a book that he could commission? I was going to India? Then a car and a driver would meet me at Bombay airport.

They did. I was taken to the house of his brother, Ashok Hinduja, by air-conditioned Mercedes. Guards saluted at the gate and Ashok came to meet me wearing loose Indian clothes and dark glasses. We walked on his lawn beside the sea and drank coconut milk.

Most of my questions were met with a tut-tut sound and the phrase "press gossip". Small corrections to rumour were sometimes volunteered. The correct estimate of the number of guests attending a family wedding, for example, was 6,000 rather than 10,000. We had lunch ("delicious", I see from my notes) which was superintended by his widowed sister-in-law in her white sari. There was curry made from lentils, different forms of fried and baked roti in spectacular colours, bright-green pistachio kulfi.

I had broken bread with them and, as the Indian phrase goes, eaten their salt. Now it was time for me to leave. Ashok led me towards the door and then vanished abruptly into a cupboard - the gift cupboard.

"For you," he said, piling one box on another. A leather briefcase, a silver cigarette lighter, a silk scarf, a book of Indian miniature paintings.

"No, really, I can't," I said.

"Please don't offend me," he said."It is our custom."

That was more than 10 years ago. I still have the brief-case, the book, the lighter and the scarf in a drawer. The piece was never written. Facts remained in short supply. It was like trying to grasp mercury.

And now the Dome. The news that the Hindujas are to be involved is rather encouraging. To paraphrase the old joke about Hungarians: Mr Mandelson may be first into the revolving door and a Hinduja second, but the Hinduja will be the first out.

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