The Making of Hero: Four Brothers, Two Wheels and a Revolution that Shaped India
Author: Sunil Kant Munjal
Price: Rs 699
At the age of twenty-four, my father got a second shot at life. He was standing on the roof of a friend’s home in Kamalia, when he came within a hair’s breadth from death. A communal riot had broken out, one of the many that marked the Partition of India. As he watched the bloodletting and acts of arson, to the accompaniment of screams and gunfire, a red-hot pain flared across his forehead. He clapped a hand over his brow and it came away bloody. A stray bullet had ploughed a furrow just above his right eyebrow. A centimetre more and it could have been fatal. He put his hand over the injury, the wound forgotten in the greater pain of watching his country bleed. Independent India would carry the scar of the communal riots. So would my father, Brijmohan Lall Munjal.
If someone had told him in 1940 that his country would be torn apart and the province of Punjab divided, my father would not have believed it. In March of that year, the Lahore Resolution had called for an independent Muslim state. Seven years earlier, Choudhary Rahmat Ali had coined the term “Pakstan” (the “i” was added later). But no one in Kamalia dreamed that their town, an hour’s drive from Harappa (one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world), would become part of a whole new country.
So unimaginable was the idea of migrating from Lyallpur even in the mid-1940s that uncle Satyanand had decided to renovate their ancestral home. As the construction went forward, he was preoccupied by another family matter.
My father, Brijmohan, had turned twenty-one. He had shown himself capable of getting a good job and, thus, his prospects were bright. Uncle Satyanand felt it was time his gifted young brother started a family of his own and began scouting for a suitable match. He deployed his wife’s family connections in Lahore for the purpose. They passed the word around. One of them happened to mention the eligible Munjal bachelor to a relative, who was working with an insurance company. It turned out that this gentleman’s wife had an unmarried sister. Her name was Santosh. She was petite and pretty and from an unexceptionable background. Her father was a doctor, fortuitously based near Kamalia, and Tara Chand, my maasi’s (mother’s sister) husband, lost no time in finalizing the match.
So, in the penultimate years of the world’s largest freedom struggle, with hostilities between communities sharpening and dire winds pregnant with violence, change and displacement, blowing across the country, two young people found themselves engaged.
In remote Kamalia, there were heated discussions, protests in the streets and communal tension. It was a reflection of the atmosphere in the country, gripped alike by nationalistic fervour and distrust between Hindus and Muslims.
It was clear that the British had lost their hold over India, even as the Second World War raged on. The British parliament had sent a delegation led by Sir Stafford Cripps to secure Indian support for the war effort in 1942. The Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi, rejected the British offer of a new constitution and dominion status (instead of full independence) for India after the war. The Muslim League also cold-shouldered the offer, but for different reasons. The Congress responded to the failure of the Cripps Mission by launching the Quit India movement.
In a stirring speech on 8 August 1942, at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay, half a kilometre away from Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College, where the Indian National Congress had been founded more than half a century earlier, Mahatma Gandhi called for “determined, passive resistance”. “Here is a mantra, a short one that I give you,” he said. “You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is: Do or Die.” The Mahatma’s “do or die” call reached every corner of the country and became a rallying cry for all Indians. The Quit India movement took off on the following day. Gandhi and most of the top Congress leadership were arrested, leaving the movement rudderless.
The political turbulence had an economic context. The Second World War had adversely affected the Indian economy. In the first few months after the war broke out, exports rose on a demand for agricultural commodities but soon encountered shipping difficulties, as one country after another fell to Germany in the west and Japan in the east. India’s trade fell by a factor of one-sixth, mainly on account of groundnuts, raw jute and oilseeds, resulting in a surplus of these commodities on the one hand and shortage of foodgrains on the other. Indeed, the exigencies of war put tremendous pressure on food supplies, thanks to the increased presence of soldiers, war evacuees and prisoners.
At the same time, the marketable surplus declined, with farmers preferring to hold on to their produce. Imports fell sharply, from 2.15 million tonnes in 1939 to just 0.5 million tonnes in 1941. Stockpiling was encouraged by fears of currency depreciation and the expectation of a further rise in prices. Food crops in Bengal had already been impacted by a series of natural disasters. To make matters worse, the supply of Burmese rice to Bengal was cut off when Rangoon (now Yangon) fell to Japan in April 1942. The massive influx of refugees from Burma put further strain on food stocks. Addding fuel to the fire, the British followed “scorched earth” and “denial policies”. To impede a possible invasion of India through Burma, they chose to remove or destroy stocks of paddy (unmilled rice) in south Bengal rather than allow them to fall into Japanese hands. Compounding the shortage was the diversion of food supplies to the military. The British-Indian administration failed miserably to free up foodgrain stocks and ensure their equitable distribution.
It was a perfect storm of adversity: War, natural disasters and administrative incompetence of stunning proportions. The result was the Bengal Famine of 1943. Cholera, dysentery, malaria and small pox stalked a starved population, wiping out millions in present-day West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Bangladesh.
The Munjal family followed the news of war and famine with consternation. Little did they know that the horror of mass starvation would soon be followed by the greater horror of Partition. It was my father who first realised that the unthinkable had become the inevitable. One morning, he was at his teak bureau, at the family home in Kamalia, attending to paperwork while listening to the news on the radio. It was all about the talks being held on Partition.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, was adamant, despite the Mahatma’s pleas. All at once, my father put down his pen and gazed out of the window, deep in thought. Framed by the window, he saw his indefatigable elder brother hard at work, orchestrating the remodelling of the family home. His mind’s eye turned towards the north-east, leapt across the Ravi and 200 km of fields, to Amritsar. He wondered whether the border would be drawn there, when the country was divided?
Even in his early twenties, my father was mature beyond his years. He had learnt to trust his instincts, which were now telling him that the family’s cosy existence in Kamalia was fast approaching an end. It would be an awful wrench, but if they were to survive, they would have to uproot themselves from the land of their forefathers and make a fresh start elsewhere. He was to be married soon; he must secure his wife’s future and help the family as well.
My father recalled approaching the family elders with the idea. He would later say: “Our father told us to figure out the way forward ourselves … some members of the family refused to believe that Partition was actually going to happen. But we were already beginning to see fights and skirmishes all around us.”
So a family meeting was called and they huddled together as my father described, point by point, the information emanating from news bulletins. He said it was time to face the truth, appalling though it seemed. Partition was no longer a remote possibility, but a strong probability. The family must plan for the future, if they were to have one at all. It was apparent that Amritsar was likely to remain with India. Two of the brothers would go there and set up a business, so that when and if Partition occurred and they had to leave Kamalia in a hurry, the family would have a source of livelihood.
The choice of business was governed by fate and expediency. The war that had impacted Bengal so horribly, had proved beneficial to Indian industry. Large government orders fuelled the growth of industries old and new. Among the old, cement, cotton textiles, iron and steel and sugar expanded substantially. Among the newly burgeoning industries were diesel engines, pumps, sewing machines, machine tools, and bicycles.
The Munjal brothers knew bicycles. They did not have any capital, but possessed the technical knowledge and skills to make their mark in the rapidly growing bicycle industry.
I have heard what happened next from uncle Om Prakash. He joined uncle Dayanand, who had set up a shop in Amritsar. Describing the beginnings of the business in 1944, uncle Om Prakash, a great raconteur, would tell us “Jung chal rahi thi (the war was on) … bada chhota kaam tha (it was not grand at all, the work) … cycl parts ka (of cycle parts). It was war time, imported parts were not arriving. Indian made parts were found in Amritsar and Ludhiana.
These were very big markets which were supplying all over India. We started trading in cycle parts by procuring them from the market. My father would add to the narrative: “On the road, there were nothing other than bicycles. And nothing to repair them with. Some artisans in Ludhiana, Malerkotla, Sialkot, Amritsar and Lahore started making components in a very crude way. People like us would find imported parts and bring it to those artisans and give them some money to copy these parts.”
Uncle Dayanand told us that even though my father was in Kamalia at the time, he tried to do his bit to help the fledgling business in Amritsar that he and my uncle Om Prakash were managing. I still remember the deep affection reflected in his eyes when he narrated the story of my father’s very first business coup: “He went all the way to Quetta and came back with a Rs 2,500 order. It was the biggest order we had ever received. Om Prakash and I were both in Amritsar, supplying parts, and were stunned.” In those days, Rs 2,500 was a king’s ransom for a small business. When the Second World War came to a close, it was obvious that the independence of India would soon follow.
Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India