Listen to this article:
To say Rakesh Jhunjhunwala leaves a problematic legacy behind would be stating the obvious.
One way to describe Rakesh may be the two parts that constitute him – persona and personality. A man who was defined by his ‘Midas’ like relationship with stock picking, but was also known for his crass comments tinged with sexism, disparaging commentary and often jingoistic political bytes.
One of my clearest memories of Rakesh is after an event with the business channel I was then associated with. We were gathered around a table, chatting about the state of the economy, where markets were headed – no surprises that most conversations centred around those topics. Suddenly Rakesh looked at me and said in his trademark blustery tone, “What is this? Why aren’t you wearing any gold ornaments? Why are you dressed as Kaikeyi?” He was alluding, of course, to the mythological text of Ramayana where the queen, Kaikeyi, proclaims she shall neither put on ornaments nor partake of delicious dishes if Ram is installed as king. I was still absorbing that zinger when the next one followed, “What is all this journalism-vournalism? You have done enough now, it is time for you to get married.”
This was classic Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, brash, brusque, completely devoid of gender or other sensitivities and, if one were to give him the benefit of doubt, perhaps at some level exhibiting concern and sharing advice that fit his own worldview.
For many decades now, his has been the most sought after interview, comment and quote every time the stock market decides to put on a spectacle, on the way up or down.
Over the last few years, though, Rakesh was speaking more often about the country’s growth prospects, where he saw the economy headed and increasingly, making sharp jibes at political leaders from the opposition alongside warm paeans sung to the ruling government and the Prime Minister. I do not recall this commentary in the past – and I must qualify that my interactions with Rakesh have been in a professional context. So if these political views were aired in private with friends in the past, I wouldn’t be privy to that conversation.
You can debate the personality, but you cannot debate his ability to build a multi-million dollar empire of wealth by investing in stocks, and later moving on to becoming a founder of businesses too. Many of his statements drew cringes of disapproval for their rank sexism, bias and downright poor form. It must also be said that those who listened on never contradicted nor checked this stream of undiplomatic chatter, whether it was business journalists, financial community members or others.
Designated “bull” for all things stock, trading and India, conversations with Rakesh were often a curious mix of bluster with sharply cogent views on the prospects of a business or an industry thrown in every now and then. Credit of the success that Titan has seen at the stock market seems to have been divided equally between the efforts of its management and that Rakesh remained a loyal stakeholder. Stock traders and investors often look at stock performances in buckets; the technology pack for instance, or construction stocks. And just like that, there was an “RJ stocks” list, all the stocks held, invested and traded in by Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.
Many within and without the stock market speak of his proximity to certain industry houses, how he used that to his advantage and how many of his stock picks reeked of an ‘in house clique’ that was helping to set prices up. His soirees were well-known, held both at his home and at his farmhouse on the outskirts of Mumbai where members of the stock community tripped over themselves to be part of the guest list and to be privy to the “stock talk” that Rakesh may have had at these evenings. A lover of old world Bollywood songs, his friends would regale him with renditions of these evergreen hits while Rakesh would draw ribald laughter with his jokes and studied attention with his market acumen.
At the very base level though, what Rakesh deserves credit for is the positive attention he drew for the stock market.
I can recount countless young traders I have met over the years who entered the world of stocks inspired by ‘Rakesh sir’. Rakesh made it an acceptable and a desirable professional ambition to become a stock trader and to dream of building the wealth that he has through his stock portfolio.
The idea that he came to stand for was this; investing in stocks can make you a very wealthy person if you choose well, if you stay the distance – and if you’re as lucky as a Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.
As I wrote, my interactions with Rakesh have always been around work.
But there are two instances that I recall where I got a glimpse of the man behind the persona and perhaps even behind the ‘out there personality’. The first is when he spoke to me of the 1993 terror attack in Mumbai. A series of 12 bomb explosions rocked Mumbai in March 1993. The single-day attacks resulted in 317 fatalities and 1,400 injuries, according to reports and among the targeted locations was the BSE building in Fort. I recall the catch in Rakesh’s voice as he narrated the events to me from that day, the fear and panic that spread amongst traders. It was the only instance when both exchanges were shut – to be repeated just once in recent history when terrorists carried out coordinated attacks in Mumbai between November 26 and November 28, 2008.
The second instance is when Rakesh became father to twins some years back. He held a grand bash in Mumbai and sent a memento to the office I then worked in, ahead of the event. When I expressed my discomfort at accepting the gift to his team member, Rakesh called me. “Please take it” he said. “This is not from Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, this is from a new father whose joy knows no bounds.”
Legacies are often problematic – human being are paradoxes of many things, and I wonder whether the last few years had Rakesh playing to the typecast “India Bull” setting that he had been cast in. At the end of it all, I hope Rakesh’s family finds the time and space to heal. And I hope the stock market provides many young traders the opportunity to truly grow, prosper and invest.