Business Did Not Come On Its Own To Me

Updated: Sep 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
Ranged against her were her mother and brothers: settle down, girl, they said. What is the point in higher studies, they said. Get married and stay at home, they said. But this young ladywho had lost her father when she was just nine years old was adamant. Study she would, and that too in the co-educational Presidency College. And she would study philosophy, not exactly a subject that would help her mint money.

Prabha Khaitan
It was the turbulent 1960s. Western society was in turmoil as millions of people were discovering the joys of individual choice and arguing the question of equality between the sexes. But such ideas were yet to penetrate the Marwari community in Kolkata. With this decision, Ms Prabha Khaitan, now 60 years old, created history of sorts, becoming the second Marwari woman to study at the elite Presidency. (The first was Nirmala Jalan, sister of Mr Bimal Jalan of Reserve Bank of India fame.)

Business did not come on its own to me: I was expected to follow the traditional line, of marriage, of staying at home, says Ms Khaitan, who now runs a leather (taboo!) and textiles business with an export turnover of over Rs 60 crore. I had realised the importance of economic freedom, without which I would have to live the life that my family chose for me, Ms Khaitan says, hastening to add that she was not being a rebel. After graduating in 1963, she saw her Bengali friends venturing into higher studies, taking up professions like law and medicine, and also going abroad. Ms Khaitan decided to pursue a Masters degree.

Then Ms Khaitan enrolled for her PhD, setting off yet another family storm. Unperturbed, she went to Los Angeles on an exchange programme for a year, paying for her passage. It was a great time in the US. people were questioning authority, the womens movement was at its height. My American hosts were very supportive, she reminisces.

There, she did a course in beauty therapy (by then she had realised that philosophy would at best get her a job as a lowly-paid teacher back home). She even did stints at a restaurant. Back home, she completed her thesis, on Jean Paul Sartre. Dividing her time between earning money and studies, she launched the Figurette slimming parlour in 1969, making it a flourishing business with an earning of nearly Rs 25,000 a month.

In 1976, she launched her leather export business. Leather Her family and community were again aghast. Named New Horizons, the company is exporting industrial leather and textile items. Did she get any special favours as a businesswoman No, no, she says. Hurdles Well, some, not on the government side.

But business had its pitfalls for a woman. She recalls how a leading buyer set up an appointment at a Kolkata hotel. She parked herself in the lobby and called the man down. He was furious - he had arranged a display of samples in his room. Look here lady, he told Ms Khaitan, if you want to do business you have to come to my room. She tried to resolve the situations by taking along an assistant.

Do people look for the man behind her when they meet her for the first time Yes, she snorts with disgust. Do they look for a man behind your success she asks me. But no, when they see a successful woman, they immediately assume that she has either inherited her money or that it is the men in the business who are making it a success.

This is a very narrow concept, says Ms Khaitan, who has chosen to remain single. She points out that anyone and everyone has to take the help of others to make a business successful. She stresses that everything she has today has been built on her own income. Over the years in business, she has put half her earnings into a trust that helps people stand on their own feet. Her adopted son, Sundeep Bhutoria, runs the trust.

Ms Khaitan is also a serious writer, with her first work published in 1981. She has six collections of poetry and eight novels, and has also translated some works of Simone De Beauvier and Sartre. Writing brings her in contact with interesting people and facets of life. My identity as a writer gives me antenna, she says.

Progress is to be in the mainstream, and at the decision making level, Ms Khaitan asserts.