From pioneering work in Tata Electric, to the pathbreaking Tata Consultancy Services, FC Kohli is a name to reckon with in the building of modern India. In a look back at their life and times, he and his wife, activist Swarn Kohli, reminisce on the links between India and its contentious neighbour, Pakistan
Faqir Chand Kohli, known to the world as FC: I was born in Rawalpindi. My mother’s family were the Sethis. Her elder brother Lala
Kanshi Ram Sethi was the president of the Indian National Congress in Rawalpindi and among the wealthiest families of the city. They were all freedom fighters and played an important role in the national movement.
I grew up in Peshawar, which was a major military centre and home to a large contingent of British officers. I studied at Khalsa Middle School, and later National High School. I had topped the matriculation exam and my family was very proud of me. I did my BA and BSc Honours in Government College, Lahore, which was established in 1864. The college had a mix of students; Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same hostel.
While I was in my final year my father passed away and that was a huge blow. Driven by the emotional trauma of my father’s death and the need to be independent. I decided to join the Navy and to my good luck I was selected. However, while waiting to be commissioned I saw an announcement in the paper for a government scholarship to study at the Queens University, Canada for a course in electrical engineering. To my surprise I was awarded the scholarship to study power engineering at one of Canada’s premier institutions, in Kingston near Toronto. The Navy agreed to release me from their employment and I set out for Canada in 1946.
My family were among the leading business houses in Peshawar. We owned a large department store called Kirpa Ram & Brothers, and had over a hundred employees, right from horsemen, coachmen, tailors, accountants, store managers, etc. We lived in a lavish house above Kirpa Ram & Brothers and it was one of the largest establishments in Peshawar. I left in 1946 from an undivided India. After doing my masters at MIT I worked with General Electric for some time and when I returned in 1951 India was divided. The Partition had affected my family in numerous ways and in the meanwhile I got a job offer from the Tata’s and I decided to stay back in India.
When the troubles started in January 1947, my brother’s families were sent on a holiday to Mussoorie where Kirpa Ram & Brothers had another leading departmental store. My mother decided that she was going to stay back and my eldest brother stayed back with her. One evening the governor of the province came over to see my mother and convinced her to catch the last chartered flight out of Peshawar where he had reserved last two seats for them. My mother was reluctant but he would have none of it and said he could not guarantee their safety, and they had to leave right then. My mother wanted to go to the bank and bring all her jewellery, but he told her to come back later. She packed a small bag with two pairs of clothes, her medicines and she left.
In the 1970s I got an opportunity to visit Pakistan again. At that time I was the director of Region Ten, an institute of electrical engineering technology. The area from Japan to the Middle East, including Pakistan, were my territory. After the Partition I was very reluctant to visit Pakistan in spite of being the Director of Region Ten. However, I went to Pakistan and had meetings in Lahore and Rawalpindi but I longed for Peshawar because that was my home. My wife also joined me on these conferences and always looked forward to visiting Pakistan as much as I did. She had spent a lot of her childhood in Rawalpindi and this would have been the first time since Partition that we would be going there. The schedule for the Pakistan conference was one day in Karachi, one day in Islamabad and two days in Lahore.
I was born in Rawalpindi. My grandfather was a well-known lawyer. My father was a sugar technologist, his elder brother was a lawyer and the younger was in insurance. Twice a year we all congregated in Rawalpindi. I studied in a boarding school in Simla in Tara Hall, a branch of Loretto Convent. I happened to come to Rawalpindi for my brother’s mundan (the ceremony when a child’s head is shaved for the first time). It was like a mini wedding. My grandfather decided that he would like to keep me with him in Rawalpindi. I was the eldest grandchild and his will overrode everything else. I left Tara Hall and got relocated to Rawalpindi.
Since people in school did not speak English well and I was good at the subject, I was given a double promotion, going from the sixth grade to the eighth. But I could hardly read and write Hindi. In fact I was so good in English that the headmaster put me into ninth grade as I could opt for English as a medium of instruction in Modern High School in Rawalpindi. I completed my matriculation and did my graduation. My grandfather died before Partition and we had to leave in very difficult circumstances. Everything that we had was left behind – our agricultural land, properties, etc. We could never go back and Partition became a horrible memory.
Return to Rawalpindi
My husband had to go for a conference to Pakistan and I accompanied him. He was very reluctant but as director of Region Ten he had to go, so I went with him. The conference was held one day in Karachi, one day in Islamabad and two days in Lahore. I had decided that from Islamabad I would go to Pindi. Luckily I found out that the airport is still in Rawalpindi and I told all the conference people that I was going to see my house in Rawalpindi. The ladies wanted to come with me.
I told the driver to take us to Pindi to the Company Bagh. In those days the East India Company had set up botanic gardens in all the major cities in the north and these were called Company Baghs. Our house was bang opposite this place. The driver said that it is now called Liaquat Ali Bagh. I couldn’t believe as we were driving from the airport I could recall almost everything. My father was in Gordon College and after Gordon College was the area we lived in. There was a huge ochre-coloured bungalow which I recognised at once. It belonged to Kirpa Ram Sawhney, whose name was written in Urdu and in English. My house had been next to it and we went up and down the road a few times but I could not find my house. We went to the Kirpa Ram Sawhney house to ask them.
We entered and the housekeeper recognised we were visiting from India. She said her madam was a doctor and she had gone to the hospital. I asked her which hospital and she said Holy Family Hospital – that is where we were all born.
The lady served us tea and dry fruits, and when I mentioned that I used to live in the next house. Instantly she said “woh rangeen sheeshon waali kothi?” My grandfather had got stained glass windows from Europe installed in the house. She said the house had been demolished and there was a big hotel in its place. I was very upset at hearing this, and I ran out. I went to the hotel and asked the watchman there, who confirmed that it used to be the “sheeshon waali kothi”. This left me even more upset. The watchman insisted that I should see the hotel and have a cup of tea. To that I responded rudely: “you may serve the others but I don’t want”. He insisted many times but I stuck to my stand. In the end he said: “the land is still yours why don’t you walk on your land at least”, my response was still no.
In the evening, the conference people asked me if I had seen our house and I was really upset with the incident and didn’t want to be bothered. A gentleman, Mr Lutfulla, who was part of the conference, approached me by asking “I heard that you are from Pindi?” I said “yes, I lived in the house next to Kirpa Ram & Brothers”. To my surprise he said he had actually lived in Kirpa Ram Sawhney’s house, and had gone abroad for 25 years. Although his niece, who was a doctor, lived there. It turned out that his niece was the doctor who lived in the house I had visited.
His niece called me up the next day and we had a long conversation. She told me that the neighbour’s parents lived in the sheeshon waali kothi and loved it. But after they had gone, their son had converted it into a hotel. And she insisted that whenever we came to Rawalpindi we should have a meal with her.
We went again the next year for the conference and my husband wanted to go to Peshawar to see his family home. We did go there and it was a huge place with a very large compound but there were many shops in it, as if the house had been converted into a mall. The first shop we went to the shopkeeper said that they were too young but they had heard all about Kirpa Ram & Brothers from their parents and grandparents. They insisted that we have a meal with them. We politely declined as we already had commitments and I must confess they all came from the heart. The next two shops gave the same reaction and also invited us for a meal.
The last shop we went to had a large ladies department store specialising in shawls and sarees. By this time the shopkeeper had heard from the neighbouring people that my husband’s family had once owned the place. My husband said, why don’t you buy a shawl, you have come to your sasural for the first time and how can you go empty-handed? (I had been married after Partition and had never seen the place.) I told my husband I have enough shawls and I didn’t want another one. The shopkeeper who heard our conversation intervened and said I should take at least one shawl, repeating my husband’s sentence, “You have come to your sasural for the first time how can you go empty-handed?” With much reluctance I chose one shawl and got it packed. The shopkeeper would not take any money, and after trying to prevail on him for half an hour I finally insisted if he didn’t take any money we would leave the shop. He eventually took the token amount of 10%. When we left the neighbouring shopkeepers all came out to say goodbye to us. It was a heartwenching moment. It was strange how once the shopkeepers knew we were from India they didn’t want to charge us and it took some convincing that we would definitely pay otherwise we wouldn’t take the merchandised.
The next year we went back to Lahore for the conference Mr Lutfulla, who had befriended us in Pindi, came to the airport in Lahore to receive us. However, from Lahore we took a flight to Pindi together, went to meet Mr Lutfulla’s niece who was the doctor. We all had breakfast together and from there we took a taxi to Peshawar. We became very good friends and exchanged emails off and on and met him in Sri Lanka and other places where conferences were held.
Many years later when 26/11 happened, within 5-7 minutes we got a call from Mr Lutfulla saying, “I know your house is five to seven minutes away from the Oberoi, and I hope you are safe.” I replied that we were. He added “Koi mazhab nahi sikhata aisa kaam karna. I shall pray for your safety and welfare.”