Laundry to London: The amazing journey of JSW Steel’s Bikash Chowdhury
Chowdhury was the first in his family to study in an English medium school. Lal’s wife Debjani offered to help with the language.
Bikash Chowdhury’s motivation to take English lessons was orange squash. The associate VP of treasury at JSW Steel was the son of a Kolkata laundryman who pressed the clothes of the family of Arun Lal, the former Indian cricketer.
Chowdhury was the first in his family to study in an English medium school. Lal’s wife Debjani offered to help with the language. And along with the tuition she always gave Chowdhury — he was about 12 then and is 39 now — a refreshing drink. “I would go every day to study because she would give orange squash,” the soft-spoken Chowdhury says in an interview over tea on a Saturday evening at his apartment in Sewri, Mumbai. With some striking art around the house, the surroundings are a world apart from the footpath in Kolkata’s Bhawanipore area where he grew up.
A relationship that started with English intensified. The Lals, who don’t have kids, took Chowdhury under their wing, and guided him to milestones. Chowdhury, splitting his time between the Lal home and his father’s pavement dwelling in Bhawanipore, went on to do BCom and MCom. Then he appeared for the CAT. In 2000, got into IIM Kolkata. Jobs with Deutsche Bank and Credit Agricole followed, including a stint in London for DB.
A new family for Chowdhury “I have two sets of parents, Mr Arun Lal and Mrs Lal and the other, my biological parents,” Chowdhury says. On his part, he has generously expressed his gratitude to the Lals. Chowdhury has gifted them a Mercedes, while driving the relatively modest Volkswagen Vento and Renault Duster.
He also financially aided the Lal family when they wanted to move from an apartment into a bungalow. As the ultimate tribute, the Chowdhurys named their daughter Arunima after Arun. Asked what kind of a person his improbable story has made him, Chowdhury says, "I hope into a better one.
I keep telling my wife Kamna that even if I am around 50 per cent of either of my fathers, I would have achieved something. I try daily to do a good deed. I have got a lot and try and give as much as I can."
Paying it forward A day earlier, he had planted trees. Two days earlier, he had fed blind people. On the day of our meeting he planned to feed stray dogs. Talking of which, Cindy, the family’s 11-yearold pet beagle, ambles in and out of the room during the interview, the pitter-patter of her paws and the tinkling of her collar bell a pleasant soundtrack to the conversation.
Another frequent passerby is the three-year-old Arunima. Sport too played a role in cementing the bond between Arun Lal and Chowdhury, who often refers to his mentor by his nickname ‘Piggy’ (Lal got the name because he likes to eat).
Chowdhury was a midfielder with Young Bengal, a first division football club. He wanted to become a pro, and would meet Lal during training. “The club was paying me around Rs 10,000 per year along with food which I felt was a lot,” Chowdhury says. "I played u-16 cricket too, but I never liked it.
I was considering becoming a professional footballer, as I played for sub-junior Bengal as well. So I was on that path, quite aggressively. Piggy encouraged me but said there were no guarantees in sport. I am very grateful he did that because I focused on studies after class 9."
The numbers challenge Chowdhury is not sure whether studying came naturally to him. But he says as a student one of his pastimes was to look at number plates of vehicles and perform random mathematical functions with the digits. He also liked to read.
And he spoke little, most times. Mathematics at IIM, however, was more daunting than the number plate variety, and he had to take help from seniors. “The first month after induction, the level of maths hit me, I thought I’m not going to make it,” Chowdhury says. "At that time I was lucky to have a friend named Manoj Goel. We are still friends. He helped me, our seniors helped us and I managed.
The institute was a really nice place and I became very popular and became a Lord, who is an informal student body head. So I would have information on the goings-on in the institute. I would tell Manoj, ‘You teach me maths, I’ll give you all the dope’." Goel, who works on the global markets team at HSBC in Mumbai, confirms he helped Chowdhury with maths, and says he benefitted from Chowdhury’s sporting nature and outlook towards life. “He was outgoing and sporty. I would be confined to my room studying,” Goel says. “He showed me there was a life beyond academics. He’s a guy you can trust your life with.”
A hard-knock attitude Chowdhury, who enjoys running and travelling to places with natural beauty, is asked if growing up on a pavement made him street smart. But street smartness to him is a small part of the overall package. “You must also be dedicated,” he says. What the road did teach him was resilience. And it helped him when he was laid off by Deutsche Bank in 2008. “Nothing bothers me,” Chowdhury says. “The first thing I did after losing my job was call Piggy and mom (Debjani). I told them to not worry and that I would get a job soon. By that time I had created a reputation for myself that I do my job and make the money (for the bank). I got a job in a week’s time (Credit Agricole).” His background has also made him more humane than the typical finance and banking industry type. “I don’t like being strict,” he says. “Which is why I get setbacks once in a while. They say I talk softly, but that doesn’t mean I’m less aggressive.”
Back to his roots When in Kolkata, Chowdhury sometimes drops by his locality in Bhavanipore. He feels blessed, but there is no survivor’s guilt. He worked hard for his success. It wasn’t just luck. In addition to studying, he did part time jobs and took tuitions. “I still have friends there and I like spending time with them,” Chowdhury says.
“Some of them are struggling. They don’t usually approach me for help. If they do I try to do what I can. They were very supportive of me in the past. They would take me out for a movie even if they weren’t earning that much. One of my earliest friends was Sukhpal. He had a dhabha. After the dhabha closed for the day we would polish off the leftovers. He’s in Bengaluru now.
About two years ago, I met him and he told me that he tells his son that study daily for an hour and you will make something of your life." Chowdhury did that. And he did that in no small measure because of Arun and Debjani Lal. Some months ago, Lal was diagnosed with jaw cancer. “He’s getting better slowly. He’s starting to eat semi-solid foods,” says Chowdhury. The two speak often. Lal, a gritty opener, never scored a Test century.
But he and his wife continue to play another, far more important innings.