True Punjabi

Prakash Tandon
Prakash Tandon

MY association with Prakash Tandon who passed away recently covered nearly four decades. He was my boss at one time during my stint with the State Trading Corporation (1969-73). Later, he became my friend, philosopher and guide who inspired me to turn into a freelance writer. It was in the 1960s that I first heard about him after the publication of his all-time classic Punjabi Century. A remarkable piece of social and cultural history of the Punjab of the Raj days, the book is beautifully woven into his autobiography. I was struck by his extraordinary organising and management flair as the head of the S.T.C.

I remained in touch with Tandon even after he had left the STC and joined the Punjab National Bank as its Chairman. My next memorable encounter with him was at Chicago in early 1977 when I had just taken over there as India’s Consul General. I discovered the person in him during his short stay with me. It was both interesting and educative to watch him preparing his own breakfast, washing his shirts, polishing his shoes, etc. He refused to accept any help from me. We enjoyed our drinks in the evening and talked about the Punjabi way of life, our old culture, social customs, and rich literature of love and romance. Like most Punjabis, he had a zest for life and took delight in being elegantly dressed.

A true Punjabi wedded to the traditional culture and its distinctive way of life, he supplemented his Punjabi Century with two more books, Beyond Punjab and Return to Punjab. He dedicated one of these to “The Punjab and Punjabis”. These three books comprise his autobiography and are regarded as modern classics. Later, these books were published together by Penguin as Punjabi Saga. Although he owned a palatial house in Bombay he chose to live all by himself with his old loyal servant in a small flat in Vasant Kunj. He did visit Mumbai but felt more at home in Delhi, which still retained some Punjabi flavour and where he had his old friends and colleagues.

I was both encouraged and inspired by him in my pursuit of research and study of the social and cultural history of India during the Raj. He gladly agreed to write the foreword to my next book Love Stories from the Raj published by Penguin in 1995. He not only pointed out the extent of research involved in digging out these tales but in a few paragraphs surveyed the history of India through the centuries and underlined the country’s inherent strength and tradition that enabled it to retain its basic cultural entity and beliefs intact. A couple of years later when I approached Tandon to write a foreword to the second edition of my book on ‘Lahore’. I was struck by his enthusiastic and willing response. Obviously, his own emotional attachment to the Punjab and his fascination for that historic city impelled him and he gave a few handwritten sheets the very next day. This time in his foreword, Tandon eloquently described Lahore as a city beyond compare that had seen so many ups and downs, invasions and retreats, and yet managed through millennia to maintain its character and entity. He also expressed the hope that the two Punjabis of India and Pakistan would eventually shed these barriers on travel, customs, movement of people and goods and live together like the people of European Community. He added! “I feel it from the depth of my Punjabi heart and the depth of our long imperishable history.”

We met regularly at the IIC and often had our lunch in the lounge. He always relished South Indian food and idlis and utthapam were his favourites. He enjoyed cooking as a hobby and sometimes treated his guests with some of his special European-style chicken dishes. He had little interest in discussing politics and its practitioners, the politicians who carry the appellation of leaders in our country. For the past couple of years he kept indifferent health especially after his multiple shoulder fracture. He was always so active and fit that he drove his Indica car himself even when he was 90. It was indeed disturbing to see him partially disabled with his arm in the sling walking slowly to the IIC lounge. In spite of all this he chose to stay on in Delhi but after his second fall and fracture his family took him to Pune where he passed away.

Easily, one of the most eminent Punjabis of our time, Tandon was born in 1911 and graduated from Government College, Lahore in 1929. Then he went to England where he studied Commerce at the University of Manchester and later qualified as a Chartered Accountant. After his return to India in 1937, he joined Unilever and eventually became its first Indian Chairman. Later, he headed the S.T.C. and the Punjab National Bank. He served on the boards of several institutions and also taught at Universities in Berkeley, Boston, California, Chandigarh, Delhi and Ahmedabad. He was working on a book on management and was keen on exploring the form and content of the management system as it prevailed in ancient India. A renowned management guru, an eminent writer, an esteemed intellectual, a venerable gentleman, an amiable character, a gracious friend and, above all, a true Punjabi at heart. That’s Prakash Tandon.