Remembering Sohrabji

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

May 2010 will mark the 10th death anniversary of an industrialist and  visionary I loved. Most other industrialists thought he was merely feeding his passion when he spoke of the need to protect forests, tigers and such like. Today, of course, almost everyone of them is speaking the language that Sohrabji spoke five decades ago. 

"Of course I will come.  I will make myself free. For children interested in saving the tiger I would gladly have cancelled an appointment if I had to." That was S.P. Godrej -- ‘Sohrabji' to his admirers and plain ‘Soli' to close friends - responding to an invitation to meet with and talk to 300 young naturalists, all members of Sanctuary Magazine's Cub Club, who had gathered to see a slide show and to draw and paint a huge "Save the Tiger" scroll.

Sohrabji lived such a full life, yet he seemed to make time for everyone. There was almost no genuine cause he did not support and no one in trouble he would not help if he could.

He was a personal friend of mine and I will miss him very much.

A couple of days before he left for his fateful trip to Paris he had called me at my office, something he did quite regularly to talk about tigers and conservation and the India he loved so much.  "Have you read the horrible report in the papers about the seizure of leopard skins?" he asked.  "How are they going to survive this kind of murder?  And we can do nothing about it?" he asked, half in anger, half in anguish. "Somehow we must keep the tiger alive till the younger generation grows up so they can look after it," he said in his typical halting manner. And, having said this his mind leaped to that other key issue in his life: "But we have to reduce our population.  How can we bring our India up quickly if we do not control the population?  You talk to so many people. You must mention this whenever you talk in public."

What a wonderful man. Pariarch and head of the Rs. 1,000 crore-plus Godrej industrial empire (cancel that... he hated the word ‘empire'), the Godrej Enterprise, ex-Sheriff of Bombay, President Emeritus of the WWF-India, Vice President of the Bombay Natural History Society, winner of scores of awards including Legion d'Honneur from the French Government, supporter of Gandhian anti-nuclear protestors...   he managed somehow to pack a dozen lives into one.  So much so that he hardly slept at night because he considered it time lost (this was why he would constantly nod off during the many meetings he attended, after having worked almost all night long!).

That was the man... spontaneous, honest to the core, emotional and, in spite of all these qualities, rational to the point of brutality and always, always down to earth: "Chalo... everyone knows the problem.  Now what can we DO about it?".

 S.P. Godrej was a practicing Rotarian and an industrialist-environmentalist.  He belonged to a family that is estimated to spend as much as 25 per cent of its total income on charitable causes.  He never looked upon himself as the owner of anything, merely a custodian.  He was everything Gandhiji said Indian's should be.

I can think of no better way to commemorate his life and death than to spend every remaining day of my life working to save the tiger, which to him symbolized all that was powerful and good about India.  In my mind, that was the promise I made to Sohrabji the second I was learned he had passed away in a London hospital, where he had to be taken when  he took ill, en route to Paris.

With the tigers that Sohrabji loved so much in such dire straits today,  hopefully those who loved him and those who love tigers will unite to further his incomplete mission.