Yasmeen Premji with husband Azim and sons Rishad and Tariq. Her family describes her as a grounded person
While writing her debut novel, Days of Gold & Sepia—a rags-to-riches saga—Yasmeen spent months researching on the subject. She needed to know enough about how a poor man could change his fortunes dramatically in one lifetime. Nothing extraordinary in this yet, until you stop to consider who this writer really is.
Yasmeen Premji—wife of billionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Azim Premji—stands at the centre of a world that is driven by the creation of wealth. And yet, when you meet her you understand how everything about her silently works towards breaking the usual stereotypes associated with affluence.
For Yasmeen, money and material success are not central to her existence. They are instruments of opportunity, not indulgence. And in that belief lies the quintessential charm of this reticent, lion-hearted woman.
“I am amazed at how little my mother has been affected by my father’s success,” her elder son, Rishad Premji, says. “She remains the same grounded person she was when I was a child. One of the most important lessons I have learnt from her is—be who you are, unapologetically.”
Taking Flight From my hour-long chat with Yasmeen’s elder brother, Zahir, I remember being particularly amused by one incident he shared. When Yasmeen was eight or nine she used to watch him play hockey with his friends, often begging to be included. When one day, he finally did, his friends were amazed. Not only was she good but also thoroughly enjoyed the game. She was considered ‘one of the boys’ from that day!
An avid sportswoman, Yasmeen went on to represent her college in athletics, basketball, chess, and was a member of the winning Bombay University hockey team.
“Whatever I did, I did for the sheer joy of it,” Yasmeen tells me. “Whether sports or studies or design, and if along the way I occasionally achieved something, it was icing on the cake!”
A sunny disposition, an unflappability and a refreshing open-mindedness—as a young woman, she was everybody’s favourite. Yasmeen was brought up in a conventional but distinctly liberal family... at par with her brothers and trusted with ample freedom. “We were not smothered with overprotection. Absence of strict rules did not mean one ran wild, it meant learning to set one’s own limits, take responsibility for one’s own life.”
Her mother remained her biggest influence. Married off before she could finish school, she kept up a voracious appetite for books, and her knowledge on philosophy, religion, history and literature could put most to shame. From her, Yasmeen developed an eternal love for the written word. “On my eighth birthday, my mother gave me a dictionary and index book. ‘Anytime you read a word you don’t understand, look it up and write down its meaning,’ she said,” and Yasmeen did.
Brought up in an environment that encouraged independent-thinking, Yasmeen worked hard, entirely on her own, to earn herself a full scholarship for a master’s degree at Smith College. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her overseas, so she decided to take it upon herself. “Not only was she independent and self-sufficient,” says Zahir, “but persevering, too. She knew she could do it, and she did!”
Those were defining years in the US. “They opened my mind and taught me to expand my thinking. At home I rarely questioned the written word, but there students were encouraged to think independently and express themselves. It was an exposure to a whole new world,” she says.
After her graduation, Yasmeen backpacked across Europe before coming back to India. This was the late ’60s, a time when a young, single girl travelling across continents on a limited budget just for the love of the unseen was unheard of!
“In hindsight,” says Yasmeen, “I realise how generous it was of my parents to have encouraged me and given me that space within the conventional middle-class framework. Remember this was at a time when even calling home, let alone getting help, was not a viable option. You learnt to make choices: Whether to eat three whole meals a day, or to spend instead three more days in Paris and get by on peanuts for lunch!”
New Beginnings Marrying Azim Premji opened up a whole new world for Yasmeen, but not one which was entirely different. Both families shared the same kind of values, and Azim’s mother, a strong, intelligent, generous lady, actively involved in social work, was much like her own mother. Dr Gulbanoo Premji would become Yasmeen’s philosopher and dearest friend.
“Like my mother, she was a sensible and straightforward person. There was nothing artificial about either of them,” says Yasmeen. “I knew that if she [Gulbanoo] ever had an issue, she would come to me directly and there would never be any backbiting. She was a wonderful person—generous of purse, heart and mind.”
The early years after marriage saw Azim spend most of his waking hours building and bolstering the small family business... one that would eventually grow into the formidable IT major, Wipro. Having lost his father at 21, all responsibility was now resting on these young shoulders. It was about now that he suggested to his young wife to design his first office.
Yasmeen laughs as she recalls, “I think the only reason he insisted that I design his first office was to keep me occupied, as he was too busy to spend much time with his new wife!” Though she had already completed a certificate course in interior design earlier, the entire exercise turned out to be such an exciting learning experience that it motivated her to go on and complete her diploma in design.
Yasmeen’s two sons, Rishad and Tariq, arrived in quick succession. Having children shifted Yasmeen’s focus, but her love for writing and design persisted and once the kids started school, Yasmeen began working at Inside Outside, then India’s leading design magazine, as assistant editor. She worked for close to 15 years, quitting shortly before the family moved to Bangalore (now Bengaluru).
The Alphabet of Life It was in Bangalore that Yasmeen’s dream of writing a book finally found fruition. The long-postponed novel had been simmering on a backburner. When her father died and more old stories came tumbling out of the family closet, Yasmeen was struck anew by the extraordinary richness of ordinary lives, and an outline for her novel began to take shape in her mind.
Days of Gold & Sepia, published in 2012, tells the story of Lalljee Lakha, a penniless orphan who leaves his native land of Kutch, like Yasmeen’s own grandfather, and goes on to find fortune and fame in Bombay (now Mumbai).
“I was writing not just to have a book published in my name or for financial success. I was writing for the sheer joy of writing,” says Yasmeen. She wrote the old-fashioned way—putting pencil to paper. Sometimes she would write for weeks, sometimes not for a couple of years. No wonder it took 20 years before reaching completion!
Rishad tells me, “I believe that my mother really wanted to prove to herself, more than to anyone else, that she could do it. I read the manuscript before it was printed and loved it. I read it twice—and I don’t usually read anything twice—that was how much I enjoyed it. The storytelling is crisp, efficient and my mother has a fantastic command of language.” As I Reflect… I respect Yasmeen because I suspect she is one of those people who have been given to introspection early in life and are, therefore, among those who can more easily come to terms with it. She is so transparently comfortable with herself. As Gita Piramal puts it, “Self-knowledge distils life through a different prism, making it happier.”
Yasmeen’s authenticity and concern about others remind me of American writer Maya Angelou’s observation: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Through all of my interactions with Yasmeen, there is a sense of ease—I never had to put on a front, because it was plain that she wasn’t putting on one; she was always just herself.