The Polyester Prince is not just a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani but also a very good reference book about the functioning of the Indian Polity and Media since independence. Hamish McDonald has done a great job in chronicling the life of Dhirubhai Ambani and the fact that the book is banned in India (as the Ambanis found it defaming and fought a court case to get the book banned) would only make it more authentic in the eyes of many.
The book starts off with Dhirubhai’s adolescence and his participation in India’s Freedom struggle. Not many are aware that it was during the struggle against the Nawab of Junagadh, who was averse to integrating his state with India, Dhirubhai had his first brush with authority and realised the importance of maintaining good relations with the ruling class. The book then chronicles his journey from Yemen to Mumbai. The major part of the book deals with the legendary rivalry between Dhirubhai and Nusli Wadia for the Polyester market. Of course Dhirubhai with the help of his well wishers in Government and Media not only wins this war but makes Reliance Industries a force to reckon with in India Inc. The author compares their rivalry with the Mahabharata but rightly concurs with Blitz, a Mumbai based tabloid now defunct, that in this Mahabharata it is difficult to tell who is Pandav and who is Kaurav ? The purists may scoff at the means of Dhirubhai but for millions of shareholders and investors who grew along with Reliance, Dhirubhai was on the path of Dharma.
In most parts, the book holds your interest as you read about the murky details of corruption and the unholy nexus between Businessmen, Politicians, Bureaucrats and Media. However, the book gets slightly boring when the author writes in great detail about the technical aspects of Polyester. Hamish has been able to do justice with most of the facts as he has mentioned in detail how Gurumurthy had the support of Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express and how Dhirubhai had cultivated friendship in not just almost every other major newspaper but also with senior Govt officials and ministers including RBI Governor, CBI Director and senior Cabinet Ministers like Pranab Mukherjee who were always eager to circumvent or change rules to benefit Dhirubhai!! However Hamish fails to reasonably explain why Gurumurthy, convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch and an RSS idealogue crusades against Dhirubhai on behalf of Nusli Wadia. One reason could be the fact that Nusli was ideologically close to Sangh Parivaar. His friendship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani is well known but what is not well known is the fact that his son Jeh Wadia has even worked as a volunteer for an organisation of Nanaji Deshmukh, an RSS idealougue, for an year in Chitrakoot. The book fails to investigate this aspect of Nusli’s life.
Apart from the legendary tales about Dhirubhai’s business acumen that is common folklore now what makes the book different from normal biographies is the excellent research and narration of behind the scenes activities of Businessmen, Politicians, Bureaucrats and Journalists. Hamish who had worked for The Washington Post, Financial Times and the Far Eastern Economic Review has done a great job in leveraging his experience and contacts to make this book a must read for any one who has interest in India’s business history since Independence.