My father came to Vapi and said: ‘Kalyan, there is nothing here, it is empty, barren land full of cobras and other snakes; chalo yaha se.’ But I said because there is nothing here, we can do anything. That was my outlook. He gave up on me and went away.”
In a relaxed mood, Past RI President and incoming Trustee Chair of The Rotary Foundation Kalyan Banerjee reminisces on his early years in Vapi, Gujarat, where he started the United Phosphorus Ltd; “but it was Rajju Shroff’s money.”
We are seated at his and Binota Banerjee’s lovely, cosy home in Vapi, which is undergoing some renovation. I am familiar with Banerjee’s erudition and grey cells, but it is his candour and wry sense of humour that distinguish the man for me. We begin by discussing the newly acquired beautifully carved wooden door from Kutch, where under his leadership, Rotarians of RC Vapi and District 3060 had done phenomenal reconstruction and rehabilitation work after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001.
Before the marriage the man promised his bride: I’ll earn more money than you can spend.
“I was there within 24 hours, searching for the then DGE Bharat Dholakia. The town was totally dark, people were crying and burning dead bodies in the middle of the town. I went to where Bharat lived and asked about him; nobody replied. Suddenly, lifting a mosquito net put up in the middle of the road, he emerged, and started crying after seeing me. There were no phones, no water, no power, and he said, ‘I can’t be DG.’ I said you must; I’ll help you. My office in Bombay is yours.”
For two years Banerjee led a Rotary campaign, one of the largest rebuilding efforts in India; “we helped build over 1,500 homes and 170-odd schools.” Since then, along with the people, the arts and crafts of Kutch are close to his heart. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a Rogan painting done by an artist in Kutch to US President Obama, he has also got a couple for his home. “Did you notice the hitchko (jhoola) outside; that’s from Bhuj too. I love the arts and crafts of Bhuj,” he says.
My father came to Vapi and said: ‘Kalyan, there is nothing here, it is empty barren land full of cobras and other snakes; chalo yaha se.’
Banerjee comes from a “very middle class” family. His grandfather worked as a clerk with the British Government in Shimla; his father worked for a while with the Union Carbide before starting “a real estate business in Calcutta, where he made some money, but lost more!”
His education began at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Niketan, continued in a Calcutta school, before he was sent to the Scindia School in Gwalior. After a year at St Xavier’s College, he wrote the IIT entrance exam and was among the first to get in. The young chemical engineer passed out in 1964 with first-class honours, and wanted to work for ICI, like his cousin. But the latter urged him to join a small firm where “I’d learn actual chemical engineering. He said IIT might be famous, but what you’ve learnt there is nothing!”
So the freshly minted IIT graduate joined Excel Industries, started by the Shroff brothers, on a salary of Rs 300! “They were astute Kutchi businessmen and entrepreneurs, but very fair, sincere and honest.” One day the youngest brother, who he called Kanti kaka, read his palm (“I don’t know if he could actually read palms!”) and said: “You are very bright and have a great future, and it should be with us only.”
Banerjee was sent to Assam to set up a chemical factory, which he did, but soon fell very ill, there. It was a godforsaken place, “if you wanted water in the middle of the night, you had to make sure there was no snake under the bed. The food was a problem too.” So he returned to Calcutta after six months to work for the company’s branch there, but fell ill again, and the nurse in the hospital who did his check-up was Binota!
So smitten was he by the beautiful nurse that a seven-day stay stretched into 45 days. So was it love at first sight, I ask him?
Clearly embarrassed, he says, “I don’t know. You can ask her!” I do; what did she like about the patient? She smiles, demurs … “I thought he is a good man … I don’t know, it is very difficult to explain.” Banerjee takes over. “Her friends said she does not give a lift to anybody but I found I did not have any problem!”
But he was a Brahmin and she a Kayast; his family, more than hers, bitterly opposed the match. “My mother tried very hard, and took me to our family Gurudev, who told me ‘Aisa mat karo‘ (Don’t marry out of caste). I said I’d listen to him, but he had to meet her once. He did, and said go ahead, marry her.” Adds Binota, “He also told us the day to get married, the honeymoon date and advised us to move to Bombay.”
I am not a good cook. I only cook tea! I also make toast but Binota says I am not good at that either!
After tying the knot at the famous Dakshineswar Kali temple in Calcutta, he moved to Bombay and lived in Kanti kaka’s house. “Kaki asked Binota, what do you want for a wedding gift … jewellery or a stainless steel crockery set, and she chose the latter as we had nothing.” Within a year, his mother was reconciled.
Meanwhile in Excel, the Shroff brothers gave some land and money to the children of the fourth brother who had passed away. Rajju Shroff was one of the recipients, and a worried “Kanti kaka, told me please go with him or else he might finish everything given to him.”
The couple moved to Vapi in 1968 where he started UPL, because the Government was giving many incentives to attract Gujarat industrialists, all rooted in Bombay then. The carrot was that Vapi was only 10 km from the Maharashtra border and close to Mumbai. “Land was available here at Rs 3 a sq yard; now the cost might be Rs 3,000 a sq inch,” he says. UPL was set up on a 16-acre plot; “though simply a B Sc graduate, Rajju Shroff was an innovative man and said let’s make something nobody makes in India.” They zeroed in on red phosphorus, used in huge quantities in the match and fireworks industry, which was hitherto imported from Germany.
His weakness is his inability to say “no” and he is more than generous to his critics!
– PRID Yash Pal Das
So what kind of salary did he get? “Rs 500, but because it was a new factory, for six months we didn’t get any salary.”
Meanwhile, Binota gave up her job. There were options for voluntary work, “but nursing is serious business and if you have duty, you can’t say I won’t come as my mother-in-law is visiting. But I did many things with my knowledge,” she says, and adds that after their wedding, the young man had promised his bride: “I’ll earn more money than you can spend!”
Vapi was a barren jungle and they’ve sighted not only cobras but also leopards! There were no schools or hospitals; after a 38-year-old colleague died of a massive heart attack, they helped start a dispensary and then a small hospital, which has now evolved into a 200-bed super speciality hospital put up by Rotary and UPL. Says Sandra Shroff, Vice Chairman of UPL, “When Kalyan is in Vapi, he visits the hospital at least once, if not twice.”
Kalyan is a wall climber; an organisation has walls of inertia, prejudices, ego, opposition, odd situations. He can climb such walls and manage people with gumption and tenacity.
– Rtn Sunil Vakil
Both their children Kanishka and Ruma were born in Vapi, and first went to the school that they had started here, before going to their father’s alma mater in Gwalior.
RC Vapi was started in 1971 but Banerjee joined it only the next year. “I am not a founding member; in 1972 they invited me to join and have regretted it ever since!” In three years he was president. The next step to the DG’s post is an interesting story. D 3060 then extended to Indore and Bhopal, and “big shots from Surat, Rajkot, Bhopal, Indore, would visit seeking our votes.” Once when he saw a DG aspirant, one such big shot, “not capable of even tying his pyjamas and having a servant to do it, I thought if he can think of becoming a DG so can I! Ours was a club of very young people, upstarts actually, and we decided let’s field a candidate. So what if we lose?”
So among “all the big shots, I stood for Governor’s post and was elected (for 1981–82) at first shot.”
On what Rotary was like in those days and what it gave him, he says, “It gave good friends, good contacts, but above all, an opportunity to come together with good people, and we forged lasting family relationships.”
We’re known as an old people’s club. Our time is up. A time may soon come when the RI President won’t be above 60; there’s a great possibility of that happening.
He adds UPL would have anyway put up schools, colleges, hospitals, etc in Vapi, “with or without Rotary, but working with Rotary was having good friends to work with. Some gave money, some didn’t; some gave time or at least moral support. Vapi was the hometown of nobody; most people had only settled here, but for me it was different.”
As DG, his horizon widened. Once at a Bangalore meeting, he brazenly asked the visiting RI President Stanley McCaffrey (1981–82): ‘Mr President, why don’t you come to Vapi, where I come from?’
“In those days the RI President was like god, a word with him was like speaking to god. Strangely, he said ok, I will come. Today an RI President’s schedule is fixed well in advance, and he can’t make a sudden detour. But then it was different. So we brought him to Vapi to this very house, because where else could you put up an RI President? There was nothing here in 1981.”
As UPL’s head honcho Rajju Shroff “loves Rolls Royce cars and has three of them, he gave us one and we drove the RI President in a Rolls Royce on a two-lane highway to Navsari, where he visited the eye hospital Rotary had put up. We also took him to Surat and Daman where he stayed overnight. He and his wife were very happy.”
Rajju Shroff has three Rolls Royce cars; he gave us one and we drove the RI President in a Rolls Royce on a two-lane highway to Navsari!
This was the first time an RI President had visited the District; “earlier, nobody had the courage to even ask. So two things happened; Vapi came into Rotary limelight and Rotarians asked who is this boy who is taking the RI President to Vapi. People started taking notice of me and as a result I got many friends, and a few enemies too!”
Before leaving, a gratified McCaffrey asked Binota: “I want to give some assignment to Kalyan, what assignment do you think is good for him?” And she said: “He is good at nothing, except perhaps one thing — fighting. He always fights with me and we never agree on anything!”
RC Vapi started in 1971, invited me to be a member in 1972 and have regretted it ever since!
Banerjee was made a discussion or training leader for the International Assembly; before him only PRIP Rajendra K Saboo had got this post. “An IPDG training other DGs was a very rare thing!”
And thus, he became a rising star, and without any godfathers; which worked both for and against him. His training leader assignment and articulation skills fetched invitations from DGs to their districts. In those days there weren’t too many Rotary leaders in India with good public speaking skills. He was appointed an RIPR in 1982–83. When it came to becoming an RI Director, Banerjee was not very lucky; and lost twice, which was rather frustrating and he and was about to give up; “I thought I can’t keep losing like this and I have to concentrate on my career too! But one Govindaraj from Bangalore told me: ‘You must stand; people want you to become RID.’ ” He did, and won; and was RID from 1995–97. Next came the post of TRF Trustee; the only post left was that of RI President. Here too there were two failed attempts. But finally it happened; “the telephone came in this very room, from RIPE John Germ, who was then the Chairman of the nominating committee.”
Germ asked him, “You’ve been chosen, will you accept? I said ‘Oh my God,’ and he said don’t say Oh my God; say yes or no!” Banerjee recalls that late into the night Rotarian friends such as “Kanu Desai, Ashis Roy, etc, were sitting with me; they said whether you get it or not, we don’t want you to be alone tonight!”
I quizzed two Rotarians on what makes Banerjee special and a leader to look up to. PRID Yash Pal Das, who served on the RI Board as a Director when Banerjee was RI President in 2011–12, says, “As RI President, he demonstrated exemplary leadership qualities on and off the RI Board. I admire him for his humbleness, his intellect and his patience.”
Presently only 25 per cent of Rotary clubs contribute to TRF. Giving is part of Indian culture; my grandmother taught me to give something to the beggar who came home.
Prodded to give a weakness, he says: “His weakness is his inability to say “no” and he is more than generous to his critics!”
So what was special about his year as President, I ask Banerjee.
“Well you should ask others that; but I’ll say that concepts such as Rotary and TRF coordinators, RCs, RRFCs and RPICs were brought in by me. Particularly, the emphasis on public image. I said Rotary is not known outside our ranks; India had not yet become polio-free. I felt that Rotary should be known for more than just being an organisation that does something for the community. We are much more than that. If we want to become a worldwide organisation having a say in the world, we have to enhance our public image.”
A greater engagement of Indian Rotarians with the social media was also brought in by him, as also the concept of membership as a regional thing. “I said what will work in Japan will not work in India. So these are some of the concepts I brought in.”
As a young DG, I brought RI President Stanley McCaffrey to Vapi and as a result got many friends, but a few enemies too!
Rtn Sunil Vakil, from RC Baroda Metro, who worked closely with Banerjee for the reconstruction work Rotary did in Kutch after the devastating earthquake of 2001, says he “made more than 40 trips for this purpose. He would come from Mumbai and straightaway do the arduous road journey, often during very hot weather. For the entire reconstruction project, he led from the front.”
One “outstanding quality” in the incoming Trustee Chair, adds Vakil, is that “Kalyan is a wall climber. In an organisation there are so many walls … walls of inertia, prejudices, ego, opposition, odd situations. He is one leader who can continuously climb such walls … and manage people with gumption and tenacity. In those aspects, he stands out.”
The other quality he admires in the “very well read” Banerjee is “his easy accessibility, even to ordinary Rotarians. He doesn’t carry a chip on his shoulder and is full of humility.” But his best quality, adds Vakil, “and probably the reason he has reached this position, is that he is very forgiving. Even of those people who have failed … he always believes in giving people another chance, that is why so many people rally around him. Also, compassion is interwoven in his personality and whatever he says comes from the heart.”
A pause, and Vakil goes back to the accessibility aspect. “He has the rare ability of being accessible and yet he can maintain a dignified distance. If you’ve noticed, he rarely hugs anyone, just like me!”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
At a glance
It’s a matter of the mind. I don’t go to temples all the time. But faith yes, always.
Fond of good food, but getting to be less and less of a foodie as I grow old.
I am not a good cook. I only cook tea! I also make toast but Binota says I am not good at that either!
Yoga for 20–40 minutes; for 15 years.
I read all kinds of books and like personal stories, biographies; how people became successful, what drove them. I might read anything from Shashi Tharoor to Naseeruddin Shah, a film actor, but a humourous writer. Those are the kind of books I enjoy.
Old time classics:
I’ve read them; in Senior Cambridge read the Kon-tiki Expedition, of a journey across the Pacific on a raft. One of my favourite books. I also find Alexander McCall Smith, who writes on Africa, fascinating.
These days I watch only Hindi movies, mostly while travelling.
Everything is my favourite. When I was President, we had decided to eat the local cuisine wherever we went. We ate some unusual things we wouldn’t have eaten otherwise … such as raw meat ground into a paste, sprinkled with spices and served to us, like paste to be spread on bread. After we ate, we were told it was raw meat!
Indian classical; love Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar. I try to attend music concerts in Pune or Chennai; PDG Ramakrishna Raja is my very close friend.
Future of India:
It has to be good; we are a bright new country, but like John F Kennedy said, very few people are asking what we can do for our country and not vice versa. That culture has to change and I think it is beginning to happen.
KB’s Rotary milestones
Literacy campaign in India
Binota Banerjee says that while travelling across the world during Banerjee’s year as RI President, “we found every country has its own regional problem; so he told people “find your problem and work on it.” When Indian Rotarians asked what they should concentrate on, he said ‘education’. That is how the Literacy Focus started.”
Priorities as TRF chair
I’d like each District to take up at least one signal project for the year, and the highest amount should be raised. Presently, only 25 per cent of Rotary clubs contribute to TRF. Giving is part of Indian culture; my grandmother taught me to give something to the beggar who came to our house. And don’t expect a return after giving; the only return you should expect is happiness and satisfaction. In India there is no dearth of money but there is a dearth of good people to give that money to … so let us be those good people.
Future of Rotary
Younger people. We are known as an old people’s club and that’s causing a huge disconnect with the present generation, particularly in other countries. But the good news is that it’s changing. I came into Rotary as a 28-year-old; today I am 73 and we carry on as though Rotary belongs to us and we belong to Rotary. That is not true. Our time is up. A time may soon come when the RI President won’t be above 60; there’s a great possibility of that happening.
Women and Rotary
They are more committed. Once they take up a job they stick to it and get it done. The men sometimes do it for publicity or image, but the ladies think differently. Surprisingly some of the strongest clubs in the US still don’t admit women. Just as some clubs in India don’t take men. But that is our culture.
Very supportive. As enthusiastic as I have been. Never been negative. Sometimes when spouses are negatively inclined against Rotary, it is difficult to move ahead. We had one RI President whose wife bluntly told him that her interest was neither in Rotary nor his presidency and if he wanted the presidency he’d have to go alone and he did! But to have your spouse’s support is a huge plus point.
How far till we see a woman RI President?
Very close … it might happen even next year.