There are two kinds of people in the world, as the saying goes: those who eat to live, and those who live to eat. But for Dr Swati Piramal, director, Strategic Alliances and Communication at Nicholas Piramal India Limited (NPIL)—who’s also a food-lover and a great chef—there’s another dimension entirely: she loves cooking for others.
How passionate is she is about this? Certainly, as committed as she is to guiding NPIL’s drug discovery and research programmes, and its technology partnerships with leading global companies, most recently with Eli Lilly. Today, thanks to husband Ajay’s nose for strategic acquisitions, their company has leapfrogged from being 48th in 1988, to rank among the top five pharmaceutical companies in India by sales.
To understand how the twin strands of pharma research and haute cuisine are part of her life, consider this. In 2006, while accepting the prestigious Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite ( Knight of the Order of Merit) for furthering Indo–French medicine and trade, Piramal said: “Near our office (in Paris), there is a little bakery where every morning, a very special sweet called ‘financiers’ is made. I tried to learn the recipe, and with this ‘transfer of technology’ have made some special ‘financiers’ today… I must tell you that I am as interested in cooking as in research. I studied patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu and as my French teacher Thierry would say, there are only three important things about food—‘The taste, the taste, the taste’!”
Piramal’s culinary talent is in her genes—her mother, Arunika Shah, is also a Cordon Bleu graduate. As a medical student at KEM Hospital, Mumbai, Piramal recollects, “the one thing I wanted to do was to make a difference to as many lives as I could. Most of my classmates wanted to develop their practices.”
So, at 22, she set up a polio prevention and treatment centre for underprivileged children in Parel, where the family textile mill was located.
In 1992, having gathered enough first-hand experience, she went to Harvard to study public health and also co-authored Eat Your Way To Good Health with Tarla Dalal, a book that went well beyond recipes by providing nutritional analysis as well.
Her second book, written with a nephrologist, was endorsed by the World Kidney Foundation and addressed kidney patients on a restricted diet. From issues of nutrition, “I worked backwards and thought about herbal medicine and nutraceuticals, figuring out how useful they are for the world,” she says. “Quite a bit of our research is based on finding answers in nature, patenting them and then making medicines. So you could say that my hobby and my interests in science and medicine go well together.”
Piramal could well embody what Daniel Pink, commentator on social, economic and cultural trends, says in his new book, A Whole New Mind, that the days are gone when in–depth knowledge of a single area guaranteed success. Today the top rewards go to people who can perform with equal skill in very different domains. They are adept at analogy, at seeing things from different perspectives. Take for instance, Georges de Mestral, the Swiss entreprenuer who noticed how burrs stuck to his wool hunting pants and his dog’s fur, and came up with the idea for Velcro. Despite initial public resistance to his idea, Mestral began his own company and in 1951 successfully patented Velcro.
R.A. Mashelkar, former director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and a leading Indian scientist, sees Piramal as one such boundary-crosser. He says: “Swati’s mind works seamlessly—she is able to think global while working in the Indian context.”
Piramal’s ingenuity is also something that Ranjit Shahani, vice-chairman and MD, Novartis India, and a former CEO of NPIL, recalls.
“In 1993, NPIL made a competitive bid for Roche,” he said. “Their unique presentation, which finally carried the day, was Swati’s idea. It narrated how Alexander the Great defeated Porus. When Alexander’s battle-fatigued armies wanted to return home to Macedonia, he entered into a winwin deal with Porus, which set out that the latter would rule on behalf of Alexander, but send him a part of the spoils. For years after, Alexander’s kingdom reaped benefits from the pact. Taking off from this example, NPIL promised Roche a huge pay-back, by buying raw material from the Swiss parent. They won the bid, at a price lower than what was quoted by the competition. In fact, in just about three years, NPIL gave Roche an amount that their Indian subsidiary hadn’t managed in 15 years. Between Swati’s creative input and Ajay’s financial acumen, they clinched the deal.”
As in business, Piramal’s culinary presentations too tell a memorable story . Every year, at the annual NPIL corporate bash, she cooks and serves a different cuisine to a couple of hundred business associates and friends. This year’s theme was Sufi cuisine, from Turkey.
“On turning 50, you are face to face with your own mortality,” she says. “I had an unusual experience. In Istanbul, I came across a very rare book written by the 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi. He related everything in his life to his quest for the Divine, using food as a metaphor. His ideas intrigued me; I tried out all the recipes and found them amazing!”
One such recipe was a rose and sugar jam, gulbesekar. Instead of Turkish flowers, Piramal got fragrant Chaiti roses from Nathdwara, which she marinated in sugar and kept in sunlight for well over three weeks. And then, in a completely fresh twist, she mixed the crystallized rose jam into her hand-made pistachio biscotti dough, and baked it into melt-in-the mouth bites. Like Proust’s madeleines, these too combined in themselves distilled memories—of medieval Turkey and Indian roses, topped with global cappuccino culture.
Piramal explains, “Rumi has an exquisite couplet for each dish, and reading them was a real education. Making rose jam teaches you patience is sweet. For Baba Ghanoush, or aubergine stew, Rumi says, “In short, my whole life can be summed up with these words: ‘I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned’.”
Piramal gave the rose-scented biscottis to a temple, to be distributed as prasad. “In Europe”, she says, “each country has filed geographical indications that are patents for regional food. I think we in India should do the same for dishes that have had a meaning for centuries.”
The traditional warmth of Indian hospitality makes great business sense too, adds Piramal. “Many business deals have been sealed at home, over a nicely prepared meal. One of our American joint-venture partners fell in love with my badam halva—which I would send overseas! Food is a very strong cultural connect for people and has worked well for us.”
A couple of years ago, the President of India, Abdul Kalam, inaugurated the Nicholas Piramal Research Centre in Mumbai, a sprawling, state-of -the-art complex, with a unique natural products’ library. He enjoyed a programme of dance and music by famous artistes on the theme of Indian science, which was enlivened by Piramal’s creative touch. Then a fitting finale—a repast cooked and served by Piramal and her mother. As professionals from many different walks of life came together, this was a grand mezze indeed, an open, mixed, shared platter of different elements, where, as Rumi wrote, “Every friend is food for the heart.”
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