On a cold January morning in Pune some twenty years back, was dressed in formals, suited, tie et al and ready for the job interview. Had flunked in a few earlier. So was obviously edgy. My choice of discipline was project execution and the concerned corporate Head for Execution was to land only that morning. In a panel surrounded by heavyweights, creamed every question methodically. So when the selected people’s list was announced, I wasn’t surprised but happy and relieved that I made the cut !
The selection was for Sahara group’s flagship project Aamby Valley – independent India’s first planned hill city in Lonavla. Joining was after a month or so. Reported timely in Lonavla: a bunch of eight odd – all from the same College.
My reporting was to the Execution Head, a tall and baulky Andhrite who was a chain smoker. His inimitable style was to land up in sites towards close of work so that nobody dared to leave timely and thereby ensure more work gets done. Work apart, there were company events or occasions where we were encouraged to participate. One of the first such events was welcoming Sahara Sri’s younger son post his marriage. We all reached the helipad. And soon saw the tiny buzzing speck of a chopper which landed and out stepped the beaming prince and his newly wedded wife. The drum beats, kettle bells and conch ringing not only made it look desi and authentic but also resonated the pomp and grandeur with which the company conducted its business.
During the first month into work, we got the opportunity to go to Lucknow to attend Sahara Sri’s son’s reception. A full compartment of only Saharians travelled to Lucknow from Pune.
It was March. We were picked up from Lucknow station and soon reached Sahara Sahar Lucknow in buggies. As we entered, rose petals were sprinkled on us. We were lodged in a men’s hostel – a dormitory where every inch of space was conspicuous by presence of some Sahara product : from bedsheets, linen to toiletries. We were given rupees one fifty food voucher every day of stay. Realized even after eating forty-fifty rupees worth of food, we still had enough left to go on some binge buying of chips and biscuits and what not.
Reception was in the evening and we went to the lawns where it was held. The spread ran almost the size of a football field and as we entered our eyes transfixed on some amazing Russian circus spectacle and antics (a girl in an orb touching down and shaking hands with people and again going up – spectacles galore). In the distance was the stage where I found to my surprise several Bollywood lead actors shaking a leg like any hired performer.
Checking out the spread would have taken substantial time so we got down to making a beeline for the food. After a hearty fill, we crashed in our beds.
Next morning we had to attend classes conducted by Sahara Sri. Golden nuggets from his Book : Sukh, Shanti, Santushti were shared and even people were urged to ask him questions which I did. Towards the afternoon, few Bollywood belles joined us.
While moving around in Sahara Sahar, few things which caught my attention included Sahara Sri’s old scooter from his humble beginnings. In contrast, the choppers and planes parked in each of the palaces of Sahara Sri and his family members seemed from another world and another incarnation.
After two-three days in Sahara Sahar, it was time to return. Hospitality staff in Sahara Sahar bid farewell to us with some parting gift and mementos. Returned to Lonavla with memories of a lifetime.
While in Aamby Valley had sought the approval of Sahara Sri’s son (Jr SS) to bring my family in for a visit. Twice. Each time granted instantly. Was able to show my family around Aamby Valley and also inside Sahara Sri’s palatial building inside the premises. Had also sought permission to participate in the Brand Equity Quiz in Pune which Jr SS readily sanctioned. During Sahara Sri’s wife / son’s birthday, parties in the open air theatre were quite common and all employees participated with great fun and fervor.
One of the biggest spectacles in Aamby Valley but which appeared almost common place was the celebration of each employee’s birthday. The Director a retired Army veteran would be present every day during lunchtime and personally cut and feed cake slices to each employee !
I worked for two years in Aamby Valley and towards the end of second year, got the first sniff of austerity. A year or so into work, one fine morning got to know that the Scorpio SUV allocated for our Development Group had been refused to my boss for fetching him from the station (in other words company vehicles no more to be used for personal use). Soon many senior staff (army retired) were let off in an unceremonious and awkward manner – reporting structure was swapped overnight with seniors asked to report to juniors and many seniors left (how else to reduce staff in a company where lifetime employment was guaranteed to all employees).
Towards the end of my tenure, I contracted Hepatitis A and bronchitis and with Doctors in Lonavla unable to diagnose my illness, my Development Group Manager was kind enough to drop me to Mumbai at my sister’s place for treatment. After a two-month recuperation and break when I joined back, I already had a job in hand and soon submitted my papers. After two-three days got relieved from service.
Just the way I rejoiced when I joined Aamby Valley, I felt relieved being able to move on in my career. An eventful two years where I learnt a lot about a family based conglomerate, its business model, what ailed it and also its generosity and bounty in employee engagement. Sahara Commercial Corporation Ltd as the parent company was called and Aamby Valley – notable phase in my career, an experience to cherish but also to move on.
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