There are some people who live life on their own terms till the end. MR Pratap who passed away yesterday at 96 was one such. I got to know this remarkable personality a few years ago when I was asked by his son Ranjit to document the business history of the family. Over several Saturdays I spent time with him, and got to understand him well.
Pratap’s father M Rajagopal Naidu was the man who set the family on its entrepreneurial career. His origins were humble, he having begun life as a technician at Addison and then moving on to Simpson’s. Somewhere along the way he opted to become a businessman, signing up dealerships for American and French cars. Rajagopal Motor Works prospered, at the intersection of Mount Road and Ritchie Street. Rajagopal Naidu was a man who believed in real estate and invested considerably in it, living in Sarasu, a house of five acres in T Nagar and buying up Western Castlet, that historic property on Mount Road. By the time of Independence he began planning to get into manufacturing as well. It was his licence for making Engine Valves that LL Narayanan of Rane acquired to shift his group from trading to manufacturing. He ran cinema theatres in Tirupati as well.
Pratap joined his father in the 1940s. His passion was the typewriter business that his family had an agency for. He ran it more or less as an independent venture and when M Rajagopal Naidu died suddenly in the 1950s, opted to settle the other activities on his cousins and sibling and focused on building a manufacturing facility for typewriters in Guindy. The name Halda may mean nothing to the present generation but in its time it was a landmark in South Chennai. The facility, in collaboration with a Swedish company, made typewriters and after Remington and Godrej was India’s third such unit. Later Pratap branched into calculating machines for which he set up Facit Asia.
During the years he ran these companies, Pratap faced numerous challenges and fought them all with grit and tenacity that were his greatest strengths. He became an expert on FERA and tax cases to such an extent that his lawyers representing him were more on record than actually arguing for him. In the end, much of the products that his companies made were rendered outmoded by technical advances but while they lasted he gave his competitors a good run for their money.
By the time I met Pratap, he was in his nineties but the fire had not dimmed. The old man was happy that I was punctual for all my meetings but he was always in his seat before I entered his office. The AC would be set to somewhere near zero but I guess he liked it that way and as one of my research scholars said it probably accounted for his longevity, the cold preserving him better! I mentioned this once to him and he was delighted.
Pratap would have made meticulous notes for each meeting and refer to them as he spoke, being faultless on dates and facts. It was a pleasure dealing with him and it was double delight when he sometimes embarked on frank commentaries on some of his illustrious contemporaries.
I said he lived life on his own terms and much of this was manifest in his lifestyle. He did not like clubs and so built himself a house, The Villa Enchantress in Kotturpuram that was pretty much a club in itself. It spanned several acres and in it he put up tennis courts and a swimming pool. All his friends were welcome to use these facilities. A lifelong practitioner of yoga, an avid sportsman, an expert horse rider and a man who believed in the benefits of Ayurvedic massages, he was also a practising homeopath, prescribing medicines to his friends. His longevity was probably due to all these best practices. Tall, slim, gimlet-eyed and with a head full of hair, Pratap’s looks belied his age, as did his agility.
Post the book, about which Pratap had one complaint that I had written more on his father than about him, I had occasion to meet him and he was always his sharp self. We celebrate American businessmen and several successes of India as well, but men like Pratap, who belonged to the first generation of post-Independent India’s entrepreneurs who bravely stepped forth believing in a dream are largely forgotten. A brave man who fought challenges at every step in his life, I am sure he is not going to allow the Gods to rest easy in the heavens. There will be the matter of ambient temperature to start with.
You may also want to read The Halda Junction, a lost landmark