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Remembering Isher Ahluwalia: She always had new ideas, looked at issues in new way, writes Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

Coming from a middle-class upbringing, a Hindi-medium background, she scaled enormous heights because of her intellectual appetite and capability.

Isher Ahluwalia (1945-2020)

By Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

Isher Ahluwalia was an amazing woman, and you would know that if you read the book (Breaking Through) she wrote at the end of her life. She was very keen that she write it while she could. She was a self-made woman. Coming from a middle-class upbringing, a Hindi-medium background, she scaled enormous heights because of her intellectual appetite and capability. She was one of the most brilliant and inspiring minds I have met.

I met Isher about 15 years ago at a seminar in Delhi. I was a successful entrepreneur and she was a renowned economist. The moment we met, we hit it off. She became one of my dearest friends. I learnt a lot from her.

I respected her for her understanding of urbanisation and the economy. Every time I went to Delhi, I would meet her for a cup of coffee. Every time she came to Bengaluru, we would have dinner together. We travelled together to many countries. She was also a close friend of the Murthys (N Narayana and Sudha) and we spent a lot of time together.

And then she invited me to be on the board of ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations). She said, “I need you to come on board and bring fresh thinking into our work.” She was the driving force behind ICRIER. Single-handedly almost, she rebuilt and steered it into becoming a leading policy think-tank. The respect she commanded in the entire economics world was striking. She was always thinking of new ideas and looking at issues in a new way. She was engaged with the challenges facing our country. Her mentor was (former prime minister) Manmohan Singh. So it is very sad that it is his birthday today. She admired him immensely and they would often have very interesting discussions. She didn’t agree with everything he said, or anyone said. She had a mind of her own.

Isher was a whole person, always ready to enjoy life, whether it was a wedding or something else. She was the life and soul of gatherings. I remember especially the sangeet of Mr Murthy’s daughter (Akshata), which was held at my house. She was marrying a Punjabi (Rishi Sunak), and I still remember how much Isher regaled us with beautiful Punjabi songs.

I admired her for her brilliance, but also for her elegance. She was always dressed beautifully. She loved shopping for saris and crafts. If I asked her what she wanted on her birthday, she would say buy me a Kanjeevaram. She was very close to her husband. It was a very warm and a close-knit family, a decent, high-integrity one.

I was abroad last December when I got a call from her. “I need to talk to you urgently,” she said. She had been feeling needles and pins in her hands, and found she couldn’t hold a pen properly. She had had a scan done, which showed a lesion in her brain. It turned out to be a malignant neuroblastoma. I knew it was going to be very bad, and she, too, knew it. Unfortunately, doctors couldn’t do much or operate on it because of its location. In January, I went to Delhi to meet her. She told me, “Right now, I can still do many things. And I have so much to do before I start becoming incapacitated.” She knew she had limited time.

But look at what she did with that time! First and foremost, she made sure that Montek (Singh Ahluwalia)’s book (Backstage) was finished. I went for the book launch in February, and that was the last time I saw her. That day, I spent time with her at her home. I saw she had slowed down. But she could still speak and move around, though she felt unsteady on her feet. “I have to finish the book,” she told me again. She worked furiously on it. I think she wanted to show in the book that someone from a humble middle-class background could actually rise to great heights, that you can be a self-made woman. You don’t have to give up this or that. It is not about making sacrifices but about choosing your priorities. Because of those priorities, she could grow intellectually, as a person, as an economist, as a mother, as a wife. She is showing us that way.

I really feel blessed that I knew her and that I shared some special times with her, especially during these nine months of her illness. She knew that her life was coming to an end. “I feel so terrible, I have so much more to do, but I don’t have enough time.” I feel devastated even though I knew she was going to go. I spoke to her 10 days ago because she wanted to hear my voice. She was trying to say something but I couldn’t make out what it was.

—Shaw is chairperson and managing director of Biocon Ltd

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