On December 7th 2015 I got an opportunity to be a reader to Dr Nandlal Pribhdas Tolani who runs in his name a college in the suburbs of Mumbai, a Shipping company with decent number of ships sailing across the oceans and preparing the manpower to run his ships and other ships in the form of a well-known maritime Institute at Talegaon by the name of Tolani Maritime Institute , I did not know I would be associated with a Gentleman who was already a legend in his own way and come a long way from Sind ! and that I would be a mute observer to all his achievements. As he was getting affected by acute macular degeneration, affecting the central part of retina, leaving him with only peripheral vision, an inherited condition from his father, he was dependent on somebody to read for him the newspapers, magazines and other reading materials. As days passed my reading hours increased, which I began to enjoy very much as his range of interests varied from reading newspapers to knowing more about astronomy, sailing, natural science, Geography , space, Galactic travel etc, I realized it was I who was getting lessons in finer aspects of gathering knowledge.
For him time was very important and I would arrive a couple of minutes earlier and wait for him outside his chamber, He would walk but needed the assistance of four legged walker for support. I saw his humbleness when courteously asking for “ Ek cup chai milega” on his desk phone to the pantry person pressing the dial buttons correctly and would immediately turn and ask me “ would you like to have too” very sincerely, it was then I realized how he made friends with all and spread warmth among diverse friends, it was difficult for anybody not to take his hand in friendship!
I never kept an eye on the clock in his company for I watched him minutely all through the day. He would quickly finish his lunch and call for me lest any time was wasted; such was his passion for reading and assimilating knowledge. Reading the books of Abhilash Tobby and Dilip Donde on sailing around the world solo gave us the immense pleasure, as I felt I was doing the circumnavigation with them, and very humoursly and in jest Dr NPT would say,”, they are sailing around and we are stuck at this place”, trying to turn his head towards the huge windows and into the sea beyond, it was then I realized how much he is missing out on outdoor activities, but he never showed any regret , for he was a very satisfied individual.
In the course of my reading I have journeyed to the various stars and planets of our universe, so too to the Cornel college where our Dr got his Masters and the PhD, and to Sind where he was born and brought up!.
He was very enthusiastic to my reading his book ‘Odyssey’, I must have read that book many a times and each time I read it, and he rejoiced it very much. His memory was sharp in spite of his age and as a repercussion of the serious fall he had on 10th November 1999, he had some difficulty in remembering but no sooner I would read a interesting passage, he would signal me to take a pause, his voice would sparkle and without an error he would repeat what I would have read, a tribute to his memory. He would re-live and recollect his favourite childhood past time of flying kites, and the pleasure in cutting other kites down, which showed a trait of leadership running in him and a great desire to be success in his field.
His father Pribhdas Tolani , who was called by everybody as Kaka , was a strict disciplinarian but a kind person. He instilled in the youngsters a very strong value that business has no place in society unless it contributed to the development of society. Kaka’s grandfather Awatrai Tolani though not being wealthy would set side, agricultural produce, distribute grain, clothes each year to the people in distress and need; it was a family tradition carried forward by kaka in Gandhidham where he set up Tolani Foundation a trust created with his personal funds, out of which bloomed many colleges offering different faculties ; all these began after he was deported from Sind unceremoniously like a common criminal after a false charge was hoisted on him by the locals and released on condition that he left the country, thus arriving in Bombay like thousands of other refugees from Sindh in early 1949.
Dr.NPT passed his matriculation exam in first attempt which was considered an achievement, Studies was not given much importance in those days but his father saw the importance of education who got his BA degree from Wilson college, so much so that even NPT’s sisters became graduates after a big break in their studies. Since they had lot of lands and water in plenty through the source of rivers, his father was keen that his son take up agriculture which would help them in their future. NPT got his Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture with first class honours and distinction and stood second in his university. It was during his college days that he was attracted to the game of bridge; soon he was so proficient that over the years he was participating in championship Bridge all over India and abroad. To him bridge was an intellectual game, he never played for money, He played for small stakes, in order to bring a sort of discipline into the game, any money he earned substantially would be left behind on the table for others to recover their losses. He was so immersed in the joys of the game that the rest of the world would be forgotten no sooner bridge lovers met and began dealing. Dr Tolani became a player of international repute representing India at tournaments in India and abroad!
In 1945 after after passing out of Agricultural college in Sind, NPT was keen to go to America to do his Masters , he duly applied to the well-known universities of America and in due course he received letters from all five universities, but his father wanted him to take care of their lands and the people who lived on them. He enjoyed his life at home with family and on lands, but still eager to pursue higher education in America. As their financial situation improved he was able to persuade his father to send him to America to study at Cornell Ithaca. His years at Cornell passed soon and he acquired Masters of Science in Agricultural Engineering. He was in US for a year and a half and during that time he saw India getting independence and he landed in Bombay a day after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30th January 1948.
In-between the breaks of reading Dr Tolani sometimes related incidences between his wife and him over the game of bridge. She despised the card game of bridge to the core. Only time she felt relieved of his game was when he started playing bridge after a two year period following his accident when his cognitive abilities started picking up as a result of , which made her feel that NPT was returning to normalcy!
Being enterprising, NPT’s father and uncle prospered and their status and wealth grew doing the business of contractors, financier; weaving silk fabric also which found its way into the markets of Delhi and Calcutta. Eventually their construction work of different types grew into main activity which came to their rescue when they began to re-stitch their lives in Mumbai, losing everything after the partition.
NPT settled down to a new situation in Bombay and being industrious and diligent he and his father prospered in their construction business and began to build immense wealth. After his marriage to Parvati,called pappu more by her pet name , he began to build earthen dams, first one being a dam project in Kutch which was successfully completed ; NPT went on to build about twenty dams in the state of Maharashtra and Gujarat with in the stipulated time . In the year of 1962 he went to his alma mater Cornell to do his doctorate. His PhD thesis was to develop an operational model to choose between fertilizer plant and an irrigation project in underdeveloped countries. His thesis was ready in one year and ten months a record of having completed his PhD, which still stands!. He came back to Bombay in 1964 with doctorate at the age of forty, which made his parents happy. He was back to building earthen dams. NPT was seriously involved in building Prabhu Kutir, his permanent home on the 10th and 11th floor which is connected internally, a sweeping view of Bombay with unobstructed breath taking view of the Arabian sea and Hanging Gardens could be had from their terrace. A commanding view still persists in spite of the mushrooming of high-rise buildings.
Ever since returning with a PhD , he went into shipping business as it seemed by and large trouble free and government was promoting shipping by giving tax incentives; He also met many stalwarts who encouraged him to take the plunge!, and among them was Vasant Sheth the then director of Great Eastern Shipping Company, thus entering into the Golden Age of Indian shipping period from 1968 to 1976. He flourished in his business thus making the adage true that floats around him that “ whatever NPT touched turned into gold” or “man with the Midas touch” what everybody forgets in the process is, his determination, hard work, meticulous planning, ability to take people along with him and other positive qualities.
His game of bridge, sailing and philanthropic work continued side by side, in spite of all the business pressures; In retrospect perhaps that was a soothing balm for the hard work he was doing on business front!.
In 1996 the government opened up maritime education to the private sector and he thought owning maritime education institute which would supplement his work in shipping and contribute to the shipping industry. Thus was born Tolani Maritime Institute at Induri, Talegaon near Pune. People like Dr S Venkateswaran, C P Srivastava and his dear friend Dale Corson from Cornell were always available for guidance in TMI becoming a reality.
A tragedy struck him 10th November 1999 the day of his wedding anniversary at Tolani Marine Institute Talegaon where he had gone to supervise the construction work, without any warning he slipped and fell head on,into a heap of broken rocks into a pit below, after treatment at a nearby hospital he was taken to Ruby clinic in Pune where his brain was operated upon; He survived, but it was a beginning of a long road to recovery and several months of rehabilitation followed under the supervision of his daughter Dr Sujata Naik , a critical care specialist at Brooklyn Hospital New York, who flew down from US immediately and took full charge of his rehabilitation programme, taking him to New York from where he returned better. His recovery was slow but spectacular. Due to which he persuaded his daughter Dr Sujata Naik to stay in Mumbai and also take care of his business interests which ran into his Shipping company, Tolani Education Trust, Tolani Marine Institute, Tolani college of Commerce and various others.
With daughter Dr Sujata Naik, Varuna award in the background
After his 92 birthday he began to feel weak, but his enthusiasm never wavered , his visits to office became less and I visited his residence to continue reading. During the monsoon months he would enjoy the rains and the sounds of water falling on the big window panes. He would enquiringly ask me “are the rains heavy? If so have your lunch and go home, come tomorrow if the weather is ok”, so much for his humane qualities !
Whether the office or his residence the view out of the window is spectacular sea view during rains. Sometimes he would just ask me to stop reading and he would go into thinking session, those times I would wonder what is he thinking about, I would never disturb those precious silence of his for I knew something is brewing in his mind and it would be a good positive thought. Sometimes he would just hold my hand ask me about my family and place of stay and would ask me directly “ I hope you own the house and you have no loans on your head” he would be relieved to hear my positive reply. Very recently he was hospitalized for a longer duration but he has bounced back. When visiting him after a break, he would ask me “ srinivas why did’nt you come for so many days?” I was touched by this and had to reply him that he was slightly unwell, “ is it so? What happened” he would ask. Like a phoenix he is returning to his old self.
There was a happy celebration of his 93rd birthday on 15th February 2017 , the day on which he was like his good old self, full of cheer and laughter, he acknowledged everybody on this day and told me to come regularly hence forth, which I accepted.
Apart from the joy of reading to him I pray for his good health and mine too so that our association lasts for years to come!.
On his 93rd birthday!