A Wasted Death – the rise and fall of Rajan Pillai
by J Rajmohan Pillai with K Govindan Kutty
* * * * */ 5
Humiliation and Defeat of a successful, flamboyant businessman
This is a sad story of government and administrative apathy and perversion of judicial process. It is also a sad account of best friends turning into bitter foes. Rajan Pillai was destined to be a big businessman. Coming from a business family, he ventured beyond the family trade in cashew products. Rajan Pillai was smart, intelligent, savvy and ambitious. A small rural hometown would never have sufficed to quench his quest for greatness and fame. This story about his life comes from a close family member and protégé – his younger brother Rajmohan Pillai writing in collaboration with journalist Govindan Kutty.
The story starts from the very beginning. The humble origins of Rajan Pillai’s grandfather, the established cashew trade business of his father and the birth of the eldest son – Rajan Pillai. The story starts with the memories of younger brother Rajmohan, of all the praises his mother mentioned for Rajan, the anecdotes from school and growing up years. Praise and admiration from friends, family, teachers, everyone. He is a prodigal son. He has big ideas and plans. He goes forth. Fails at a few intial business ventures. Then Rajan’s father guides his son toward expanding the family business. Political and legal options suggest Rajan to be based outside India for making international operations of the family business a success. Rajan finally selects and sets forth for Singapore. At the time Singapore was growing, establishing itself in the international community of commerce and industry – but they were not quite there. Strict laws and harsh punishments were a must at that time in Singapore to make itself a small powerhouse in international trade.
But things finally went well financially for Rajan Pillai. His business in Singapore grew. His ambitions grew higher still. He wanted more. He wished the best and the wishes were granted. He indulged in the best of luxuries and comforts money can buy. He was successful and well known. Rajan Pillai had arrived!
So begins the rise and rise of Rajan Pillai. From Singapore he expands West to South American industry and USA for business collaborations. To Australia for a grand scheme of many hectares of cashew farms. His ambitions are as grand as his generosity. Ask and ye shall receive with best regards from Rajan Pillai.
Many were possibly envious. But such extravagant and flamboyant display of wealth often draws negative attention from people in its company. Owning the best homes and residences, setting up the first Taj hotel in Goa, a private space in Wimbledon during season – all points to a successful man enjoying the liberties his income offers.
Yet things went wrong… horribly wrong. His friendship with RJR Nabisco head Ross Johnson for one was a big turning point. From being best of friends and investing partners, the American stabbed at Rajan Pillai when Rajan was down and stabbed him hard. There were other signals. At his height of success, Rajan Pillai had bought ownership of Brittania Biscuit Company – a first time an Indian was owning this old Indian company. A very prestigious deal and fame and media praise was instant. But the Board at Brittania alleged misuse of company money. That Rajan was spending too much and too frivolously.
At home, Rajan’s father advised his son to go slow. To take smaller steps. To be more careful with the business deals and ambitions and the expenses. But Rajan was on a roll. He had made big money in a small time and had the capacity to go on for a lot bigger catch. He aimed at dominating not just the Indian market as the “Biscuit King” but to venture and capture the South Asian food and beverage market. He went ahead and brought back Coca Cola to India (Coca Cola was thrown out by communist parties earlier in Indian political history). This was a big coup. He was praised not just in media but by peers and superiors in business and industry.
He was for all his faults a gem of a guy – at least in the words of his younger brother and author of this book – Rajmohan Pillai.
What and why and how would anyone wish to harm such a generous and successful man. The man who helped Rajan negotiate Indian legal system to bring back Coca Cola stabbed him in the back and told Coca Cola to venture into India alone. And Rajan was left holding hefty bills on his personal venture’s personal investment – unrecovered from Coca Cola. Then Britannia Board made him pay all his pending personal expenses made during official trips. Then his best friend Ross Johnson demanded return on his investment in Rajan’s company. In Singapore court of law, Ross alleged misappropriation of funds, fraud, cheating, etc and this led to the Singapore government enacting its arcane barbaric laws to prosecute Rajan Pillai. They seized the businessman’s passport and threatened him with 14 years harsh imprisonment. The bail during court procedure itself was a ridiculous USD 4 million. Rajan Pillai hired the best lawyer in the world of course, he always got the best – he hired the Queen’s counsel from Britain. The British lawyer was appalled at the ridiculous nature of allegations and how the Singapore court admitted such charges. Ross Johnson and Rajan Pillai settled the matter out of court. Rajan had to sell his stake in Britannia to his French partner and lost the prized company. But he paid his debt to his friend Ross Johnson who was anything but understanding nor grateful.
The Singapore court continued the prosecution of Rajan Pillai even though Ross Johnson had settled his claim outside court legally. They wanted to make an example of Rajan Pillai. Among such crisis, the British famed lawyer suggested to Pillai that his presence would only help the crazy Singapore lawmakers prove the validity of the court proceedings. Ross Johnson had not appeared for a cross-examination yet the Singapore court accepted his allegations. This was humiliation, torture and senseless misuse of judicial process. They had already taken Rajan’s passport. And a day before the expected negative ruling Rajan was left with no choice but to flee Singapore. He landed in Mumbai.
The chaos only gets worse. Rajan Pillai held a press conference in Mumbai after he landed to explain the ridiculous nature of the legal proceedings against him in Singapore. But the media focussed now only on his past expensive lifestyle, his court hearings, the allegations, the business failures, the escape from law. They wanted to know how he fled from the law rather than the more critical, important question of why he had to flee from the law.
A few months of such mental stress would break anyone. But Rajan Pillai was still planning ahead, planning future business endeavours. He even sent his younger brother Rajmohan Pillai to establish their food business in Thailand. Courts in India refused anticipatory bail. There was no warrant but Singapore was preparing extradition proceeding papers. All the hype later, just when Rajan Pillai agreed to surrender in Delhi, he was arrested by the CBI, denying him the honour of presenting himself before the Indian judiciary. Here on, the story is heartbreaking.
The associations with the best friends in business, politics, law, the Godman Chandraswami – all narrowed down to one thing – loneliness in his struggle for justice. How CBI and the criminally-idiot Judge M L Mehta denied a visibly and documented sick person immediate medical care is horrifying. If you thought Singapore has bad laws, consider the worst law-keepers that India and India’s judicial system nurtures. The denial of serious medical care, the refusal admit verifiable evidence, the insults to injury – it only proves that people can go to any extremes to prosecute a person who is seeking justice from his homeland.
The last 3 chapters are very sad indeed, very depressing, especially the chapter titled “A Wasted Death” which is also the title of the book. It was a wasted death of an inspiring man indeed.
This is a good fast read and very important book in the business history of resurgent India. Do take time to read this book and question the system that questions you.