Mumbai: It was the most controversial book about an Indian business family not to be read in the 1990s. And the author, Hamish McDonald, is hoping that he has better luck with the sequel, Mahabharata in Polyester: The making of the world’s richest brothers and their feud.
New Delhi-based publisher Roli Books Pvt. Ltd is to publish the book, a fact confirmed by the firm’s director Priya Kapoor.
New info: The book has 402 pages against 273 of the earlier one and the author says he has cut the older material by around 20%. University of New South Wales Press
McDonald, a former Far Eastern Economic Review journalist who was based in India, started work on what was to become The Polyester Prince, a book on the late Dhirubhai Ambani, with the sanction of the Ambani family.
The author and the family, however, differed on the approach and the book became an “unauthorized” biography of sorts. It was published internationally by Allen and Unwin Pty. Ltd (Australia) in September 1999, and HarperCollins secured the India rights for it.
The Ambanis didn’t think the book would do them any good and approached a court in India against it. The court sent a notice to HarperCollins, which admitted before it that the firm had no intention of publishing the book in India. Contrary to popular perception, there was (and is) no ban on the book.
Internationally too, rights to the book—a less than modest success—reverted to McDonald. In the mid-2000s, the book’s fortunes saw a revival of sorts in India with pirated copies of it becoming available at traffic lights and on pavements in New Delhi and Mumbai for anything between Rs50 and Rs500.
McDonald hopes the Ambanis won’t try and stall the sequel, which is, in reality, an updated and reworked version of his first book. Based in Sydney, he says the two brothers have other important issues to deal with than trying to block the sale of the book, which will hit bookstores in Australia by early September. In that country, it will be published by the University of New South Wales.
Spokespersons for Reliance Industries Ltd, controlled by Mukesh Ambani, and the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group declined comment.
Nor did anyone from the two groups meet with McDonald for his sequel.
“I didn’t meet them. The family and the company had cut me off when I was doing research on the original book. I made a couple of overtures for doing research on this book, but that didn’t elicit any response from their side,” McDonald said in a phone interview.
Not banned: Pirated copies of The Polyester Prince sold for between Rs50 and Rs500 in the mid-2000s. Ankit Agarwal / Mint
He says his interest in the Ambanis experienced a revival when he was holidaying in India in December 2004, a period that coincided with the split between the Ambani brothers. And he began collecting material. The book is an outsider’s account, he confesses.
The new book includes six new chapters that cover the late 1990s, Dhirubhai Ambani’s death in 2002, the brothers’ battle over the Reliance group resulting in the split in 2005, the aggressive expansion of the two divided companies, the Supreme Court case on Krishna-Godavari gas, and the “rapprochement”. The 402-page book is longer than the first one, which had 273 pages, and McDonald says he has cut the older material by around 20%.
McDonald, now with the Sydney Morning Herald, says the first book sold around 2,000-3,000 copies in Australia.
The Polyester Prince offers an account of Ambani’s rise from a school teacher’s son to the head of the biggest polyester and petrochemicals company in India.
It touches upon the rivalry between Ambani and Bombay Dyeing’s Nusli Wadia, Reliance’s financial expertise, especially in raising money, and the company’s ability to manage the external environment.
In India, biographies of businessmen are usually authorized versions commissioned by the business houses themselves. McDonald admits that very few people attempt biographies on businessmen even elsewhere in the world.
“A business biography is treading on dangerous ground,” he says. “In India, politicians are treated as fair game, whereas businessmen are treated as dangerous subjects.”
Still, India’s economic progress over the past years has seen the emergence of other powerful and wealthy businessmen.
“Now, the Ambanis are not the only billionaires...people like Anil Agarwal...the Mittals of Bharti Airtel Ltd...they hold a big appeal,” adds McDonald.