We get her to open up on the many aspects of her life, her reclusive husband Mukesh, the kids and her passion for education.
You are an eminent educationist. How did it become an enduring passion?
My grandfather was a French professor in Kolkata, though I never met him. I started teaching after I got married. Mukesh was setting up the Patalganga plant and we decided to run a rural school. I always loved children, and after I put up that school, I realised that teaching was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What were you teaching?
I started teaching the primary students. I was studying to be a lawyer, and then my father-in-law fell ill and I gave it up. After the Patalganga school, we did the Jamnagar school and one thing led to another. Then I said, “If we can do quality education in Mumbai, that would be great.” Everyone was sending their children abroad for quality education, so I started the Dhirubhai Ambani school. It’s so important to have equity in education.
No country can grow without it. We need good teaching colleges and teachers. We have to empower teachers and give them their due. I keep reminding my teachers that I don’t remember any lesson I learnt in school, except maybe in passing, but I remember special moments with teachers when they moulded me in the right way. Everyday classroom teaching is not what children will remember, but how you made a difference in their lives. That is something all of us need to work on.
You must switch your phone off during admissions time, right?
I hardly go out, but during admissions time I stop going out completely. And keep my phone off! If I could, I would admit all of them, but you don’t want to do that because education has to have quality. If every school had quality education, why would my school be preferred?
Daughter, wife, mother, team owner, educationist… which of these roles defines you best?
I have enjoyed every role, but being a mother comes first. I had my children after eight years of marriage. It was a dream come true. I still pinch myself.
Are you a hands-on mom?
Very much. I know that Anant is eating at Kamat’s right now. The children always tell me what they are doing and where they are going. We stay connected.
How do you keep them grounded?
Both Mukesh and I grew up in a middle-class, joint family. There was a lot of love, compassion, warmth and understanding, but we also had to give up a lot of things. Our children cannot grow far from the values that they grow up seeing. The kids saw us, Mukesh’s parents and my parents, and they imbibed our values. My parents used to stay at Santacruz, and I would take the kids to Churchgate and board a train from there. My mom comes from Ahmedabad, and she used to take them there in the Gujarat Mail train. So they have travelled by local transport, etc. I think it’s important to keep the children grounded. Even now they clean their own rooms. I have kept them out of public life. I don’t like to share my children’s pictures.
Is that also for security reasons?
No, I think it’s important that they come into the public eye only when they have contributed to society in some way. I don’t want them to have things on a platter. The family name is a legacy and they should work to earn it.
What kind of mom are you?
You know, I keep on saying that I am their friend, but eventually I am their mother. So that line is drawn and they know that. They may take liberties with me, but they’ll never take advantage.
If they have a problem, who do they go to first?
Depends on the problem, and the situation. They know that if it is IPL time, I am not such a great Priyashi mother Patodiya (laughs aloud), so they’ll go to their dad!
What’s your schedule like during IPL season?
With or without IPL, no two days are alike. My wake-up time is 7 am. My older kids are in the US — Isha is at Yale and Akash is at Brown — but my youngest one Anant is here, and I like to be around when he goes to school. My day starts with my dance practice and then it’s off to work, whether it’s school, IPL, hospital or office. I have a moving office. If I am at the school, then everything moves there. If it’s IPL season, then all the work happens from the stadium or the place where the cricketers are staying. If I am at the hospital, then all my meetings happen there. I don’t really have one fixed place that I operate out of.
How do you unwind?
Swimming, dancing and spending time with the children. I tried to interest my daughter in dancing, but she didn’t take to it. As a five-year-old, she got lost on the way to her first class. After that she didn’t go to dance class again. For me, dance is like meditation. It’s my connection to God. I’m lucky I have found a passion that keeps me going. I find it rejuvenating. I think it’s very important for every woman to experience something that allows her to connect to her innermost self. You look like a perfectionist.
You know, many people tell me that, but I have not realised that for myself. I strive to put in my best effort in whatever I do. Even now, Firuza (Dr Parekh, a friend of many years) tells me to stop getting involved with the nitty-gritty of everything. I get involved in which machines have to be ordered, from which company, which doctors to get on board, etc. I am not really working for results, I am just driven by the job at hand. I think if you are passionate about what you do, it brings out your best. If something doesn’t excite me, I can’t put in my best.
You were not at all excited about the Mumbai Indians team but you took it up.
(Sighs) That’s another story! Mukesh bought the team, and for two years we finished at the bottom of the list. My knowledge of cricket was zero, and I had no interest in the game. We did so badly. Then I decided to take it up seriously. For one year, I was breathing cricket 365 days. I would watch all matches — county, club, whatever came on TV. My intention was to learn.
At what point did it become a passion?
During IPL2, when I went to South Africa. We were playing the Rajasthan Royals and it was impossible to lose. We had to make 9 runs in 6 balls. I thought we’d win, but we lost! So I said to myself, ‘I have to learn this game.’ Then I started travelling with the team, holding camps, meeting the team, and the passion ignited.
Can you delegate? Or you prefer to be fully involved?
When a project is starting out I am very hands-on, but once it is established, I let go. I don’t like to control everything. I like everyone to be involved and work as a team. But I am very particular about systems and processes. Also, I believe that you have to empower people. I don’t believe in the old babu style of working. My style of working is based on equality and participation.
When in need of a sounding board, who do you turn to?
Usually, it’s Mukesh. He’s been my friend, mentor, philosopher, everything. But, nowadays, I tend to turn to Isha and Akash also. They are going to turn 20, and it’s nice to have a youthful perspective on things. They think so differently than we do, and it’s nice to get their thoughts. Their world is a very energetic one, positive and full of new energy. When my kids were very little — sixth or seventh standard — I was planning the school timetable. Usually, we used to give one-hour slots for each subject. Isha and Akash came to me and said, “Mom, all of us go to sleep in the last 20 minutes. Don’t make anything longer than 40 minutes because our attention span just decreases.” I agreed. Now all classes are only 40 minutes long and for younger kids, they are only 30 minutes.
How aware are you of the media spotlight on you?
I have never really thought about it. I think my work gets media attention. It didn’t happen for the first 20 years of my marriage when I wasn’t involved with the schools, hospital and IPL. I was very clear that if I had to talk, it would be about my work. I think my work has brought me into the limelight. Before that, for nearly 17 years, I was Mukesh’s wife but chose to stay away. My Life is pretty simple. I hardly go out. I finish work, come home, put the kids to bed, and wait for my husband to come home for dinner.
There’s a story that Dhirubhai Ambani called you and you slammed the phone down!
It’s true. I was in college and he saw me at a dance performance. He called and said, “I am Dhirubhai Ambani.” I put the phone down. He called again and I said, “Yeah so, I am Elizabeth Taylor,” and disconnected the line. The third time my father answered and told me, “It’s really him! You better talk to him properly.” That’s how it started.
He decided you’ll be his bahu after one dance performance?!
Yes. Amazing, no?
Even more amazing is that you made Mukesh travel by the BEST bus!
During our dating days, Mukesh used to have a Mercedes, so for all our dates, we’d go in that car. Once I told him, “You have to travel my way, in a BEST bus.” I said, “The best seat in the front seat on top of a double-decker” and he came with me. It was my favourite bus route because it went through Juhu beach and you could see the sea and the sand from the top. We had such a blast.
You and Mukesh were intensely private until two years ago. Was the change conscious?
I only talk about my work, and Mukesh has always been very quiet and I think he’s still very shy. He hasn’t changed. He likes to watch his movies at the night, along with 10-15 people and that’s how he’s always been. He likes his close-knit group of friends, but I love meeting people. In fact, I feel privileged that I get to meet so many people, from educationists to sportsmen and now the best medical minds. It’s so rejuvenating and enriching.
You’ve lost a lot of weight and are dressing differently. Who is responsible for that change?
There was no motivation other than my son Anant. He suffers from obesity. He was highly asthmatic so we had to put him on a lot of steroids. He had to lose weight for health reasons. A child does what his mother does, so I couldn’t be seen eating while putting him on a diet. So I went on a diet along with Anant. Whatever he ate, I ate. whenever he exercised, I did too. If he went for a walk, I would go along. By virtue of being his mother, I lost weight. He was my main motivation and continues to be, as we are still fighting obesity. There are so many children who have this, and mothers feel shy about admitting it. But I think you have to motivate your child to lose weight, as the child looks up to you all the time. Both of us went away to Los Angeles for some time to a children’s obesity hospital so I could get into a routine with him. I think that made my transition from whatever I was to what I am today. My dressing hasn’t changed (smiles).
I don’t remember ever seeing you in a dress before.
In college, I used to only wear dresses. It’s just that clothes look better when you are 57 kilos than when you were 90 kilos! From 90 to 57 has been a big journey.