It’s all destiny

Of the many books Dhirubhai Ambani read in his early years, it was James Allen’s 'The Mastery of Destiny' that he turned to again and again

Once the port of Aden, now in the Republic of South Yemen, was to seafarers what the world’s busiest airport at Atlanta, the US, is to fliers today. Though a busy port even now, Aden’s years of glory as the world’s busiest entrepot are long past, as is the great age of seafaring itself. Few people today remember or know that Aden was until 1936 part of the then Bombay Presidency and the Indian silver rupee was the common currency there. Aden was the port where tradesmen, sailors and seafarers of three continents–Asia, Africa and Europe–met and exchanged goods, information and pleasantries as they crossed east to west and west to east. In those days and even until the early 1950s, Aden was to many adventurous Gujarati young men what the Gulf emirates are today to the large numbers of high spirited Indian traders and the many jobless Indian artisans.

It was in Aden in the early 1950s that Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder chairman of Reliance who became an inspirational icon for an entire generation of Indian entrepreneurs, apprenticed himself not only in trade and business but also in the basics of life. As he himself used to say, “Bombay made me what I am but it was Aden that first trained me to benefit from what Bombay offered me in later years.” Dhirubhai’s formal education was limited to matriculation, as the 10th standard was called in his times. He wanted to go to college but his father told him he must go to Aden and take up the job at a petrol filling station that his elder brother had arranged for him. He was thus denied a chance to acquire a college degree but he never let that come in his way. However, just because he did not have a formal college education does not mean he was not learned. Few people know how hard he worked during his Aden years to educate himself during the quiet hours of the night when everybody else in his dormitory room would be snoring in bed. He sat in his bed with his back resting erect on a pillow and read books and magazines he had picked earlier from ships he had boarded during the day to fill lubricants. He read all sorts of magazines, though news magazines were his favourites, as were magazines on psychology. Once in a while he would find a book that seemed useful to him. Especially useful were books on self-improvement and ones on subjects like mind and face reading. These fascinated him. He read these avidly and took notes in copybooks.

He was fond of new words, pointed and pithy new words and had particular liking for epigrammatic phrases. He kept a concise Oxford dictionary under his pillow for many years. Whenever he came across a new, useful word during his reading, he checked it in the dictionary, wrote it down in his notebook, and missed no opportunity to use it during the next some days until it had become part of his daily vocabulary. Such words and phrases came handy when on his return to Bombay he had to act as his own secretary at his newly launched importexport venture.

One of the many books Dhirubhai read in Aden was English inspirational author James Allen’s The Mastery of Destiny. The book overwhelmed him. He read it again and again during his years there. The book caught hold of his heart and mind. The term “destiny” became an inseparable part of his thinking and vocabulary forever. In later years when he had already taken Reliance to global heights, he attributed his success in the face of many adversities not to his own entrepreneurial qualities but to his “destiny.” That is why he was never cocky or boastful. When hailed by friends or strangers on some success, he would smile slightly, touch his forehead with his right hand in a sort of a gesture of salute and utter in a hushed tone, “It is Destiny, my friend, Destiny!”

James Allen (1864-1912) was born in a poor, working class family in Leicester. Like Dhirubhai, he could not afford a college education and had to look for work at the early age of fifteen and again like Dhirubhai, he was self-educated and like him, he too wanted to become an inspirational icon for the uneducated which he did by becoming a successful author of 23 bestselling books some of which are still in print a hundred years after they were first published. The basic message of the book is that man shapes his destiny and not destiny the man, for as the poet says “for man is man and master of his fate…” The book just does not say this but tells one, step by step, how to master one’s destiny. That Dhirubhai copy of the book–inscribed “To U Uncle, Mukesh Ambani”–now adorns my bookshelf as one of my most prized and precious possessions. It's all destiny!

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