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Billionaire in a banian
Anil Dharker
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August 15, 2005

Some Very Important Visitors -- or at least visitors who considered themselves very important -- came one evening to meet OP Jindal at his Delhi house.

The guard pointed to a man in a banian (vest) and a pajama on the lawns. He was sitting on a khatia reading a newspaper. "No, no," the VIPs said, "We want to see the seth (boss), the bada seth, the Chairman saab."

Sitaram, OP's younger brother, laughs at this story. Yes, he says, that man on the khatia was OP and it was something we always teased him about. "'Look at you," we used to say, 'who will imagine you are O P Jindal, an important man!' But that was him: in appearance, in clothes, in his food and his lifestyle, he was basically a very simple man. No rajsi-thaat (sophistication) for him."

Stories abound about his earthiness and his lack of airs. Khemanchand Agarwal, a close friend of his, talks about the time when the Bombay plants were to be set up and OP had come looking for land in the Palghar-Vashi area.

It was a hot and humid day and they had been in the car for a few hours looking at various options. There was one particular plot where an estate agent was involved. This piece of land was large, but undeveloped and they had to switch from the car to a tonga (horse-drawn carriage). Beyond a point even the tonga wouldn't go so OP and Agarwal walked.

After a few minutes, they came across a boy riding a cycle. OP stopped him, spoke to him and the next minute, he was riding the cycle with the boy sitting on the back carrier. And that's the moment the estate agent appeared.

Agarwal greeted him. "We have come to see the land," he said. "I'm sorry," the agent said, "I had specifically said to you, and you had agreed that I would show the property only if your seth came himself. "But he's here," Agarwal said, pointing to the man on the bike. "That's him."

"That's him. Your O P Jindal seth is the man riding the cycle? Mr Agarwal do you take me to be a fool?"

His eating habits were equally unpretentious. His cook of 40 years was quizzed about OP's favourite dishes. "Seeda saada (simple)," he says. "That's what he liked. Like what? "Kadhi."What else? Long pause. "Dahi and khichdi." And? Another long pause. "Dal-phulka." Perhaps OP's only eating indulgence was a leftover from childhood, boondi laddoos.

Which isn't to say he didn't like an occasional slap-up meal. R P Gupta, a senior executive in one of the Jindal companies remembers once lunching with OP in a restaurant. Each had ordered a Rajasthani thali, silver plates full of katoris (bowls) with vegetables and dals and sweets. OP didn't want to eat the paneer so had kept that katori aside.

When he saw that Gupta had eaten up his paneer, OP picked up his paneer katori and put it on Gupta's thali. Gupta, on the other hand, didn't like karela (bitter gourd) so had put aside that container. When he saw that OP's karela was over, Gupta did what OP had done: picked up his katori and put it in the other man's thali. The moment he had done it, he was mortified. "What am I doing," Gupta thought to himself. "Why am I behaving like O P Jindal, when I am most definitely not O P Jindal. But OP just said "Thank you" and carried on with his meal.

In fact, it's more than likely that O P Jindal appreciated Gupta's gesture because if there was one thing he didn't like, it was waste. Whether of food or money or anything else.

His frugality was legendary. Take the matter of STD phone calls: pretty soon, every senior executive of a Jindal company knew that though the Boss wanted him to stay in touch while travelling, he better not make the call from his hotel room.

This was especially relevant before the advent of mobile phones, but even when they had become ubiquitous, it was much more prudent to wait for the Boss to call your landline from his landline.

At home too, frugality was important. Savitri Devi remembers being given Rs 1,000 per month as spending money for the household, long after four figures stopped being Big Money. His children also remember that while they were never denied spending money, their Dad would land up with bales of off-white material for their everyday clothes. Cloth was cheaper wholesale.

Ratan Jindal also recounts what had become a family joke: their Dad didn't like leaving tips. This was one reason, he says, that whenever the family went out together for a meal in a restaurant, one of the brothers tried to pick up the tab. One evening, he vividly remembers, the bill reached OP first.

He paid what was a substantial amount (because there were lots of Jindals there), then thought of the tip. "Not to worry," he told Ratan. "I have some loose change in my pocket." The brothers exchanged glances, then made sure that one of them hung around when OP left the table so he could add a note or two.

It was also his sense of economy, which made him buy second-hand machinery for his plants. Or diesel cars -- even the Mercedeses he favoured -- for himself. But he didn't appreciate penny-pinching at all times. R P Gupta remembers once hitching a lift in a truck instead of going by train into the interiors.

When OP heard about it, he was livid. "How can you endanger your life like this?" he shouted. Another senior Jindal executive had a similar experience. He was out of town on work when he got the customary evening call from the Boss. The executive outlined his schedule: he was to stay at a hotel that evening, and catch a coach the next morning.

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