Odyssey of Courage: The Story of an Indian Multinational by Habil Khorakiwala: Review

Book Title: Odyssey of Courage: The Story of an Indian Multinational

Author : Habil Khorakiwala

Publisher : Rupa Publications

Pages : 225 ; Rs 595

Ever since Homer’s epic depiction of Odysseus’ adventure-filled return from the Trojan war, millions have laid claim to their own odysseys. The reference to Odyssey raises irrepressible images of Cyclops, Circe and the Lotus Eaters, the Island of the Sirens and the Scylla-Charybdis ordeal!  With every stage fraught with a different kind of danger, Odysseus reaches home with a combination of courage and cunning.

And so it was that a certain Taherbhai Ibrahimji Khorakiwala migrated to Bombay in 1896 from Palanpur (Gujarat), started a general provision shop, named it after an uncle, Akbar Ali (whence came “Akbarally’s”). Taherbhai’s son took charge of the store in 1955 and converted it to the department store that Bombayites came to identify with quality of goods and service. Habil, grandson of the aforesaid Taherbhai, moved into the then uncertain world of pharmaceutical research, development and production – after his B. Pharm. in Ahmedabad and his post-graduation from Purdue; a year’s stint at Harvard, and the avant garde industrialist was born.

The book is a concise presentation on the pharmaceuticals industry in modern India; of the fast changing economic-legal-professional environment in which the young Habil operated and flourished; the comfort he drew from such apparently disparate matters as the Indian Patents Act of 1970, a drugs price-control order, a committee for a policy framework for the indigenous pharmaceutical industry, and the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh intervention of 1991; his early realisation that the industry was in the cusp of change and Wockhardt’s need to ride the new wave; their move to Aurangabad – taking advantage of the incentives for industries in backward areas. Thanks to his sharp awareness of the environment he operated in, Wockhardt became the first Indian private sector company to work with UNIDO; so also his involvement in a commission to review antimicrobial resistance (following the decision of the British PM Cameron), in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, endorsing the view of WHO that, even though antibiotic resistance is the greatest challenge in infectious diseases, it had not had sufficient attention in terms of Medical Research.

He analyses the path of the success of the pharma sector in India as it evolved into a genuinely research – and knowledge-based industry, dominated by entrepreneur-professionals like Yusuf Hamied, Parvinder Singh and Anji Reddy, and where the customer-medicos know the product they are looking for. He acknowledges that the earlier dominance of Western MNCs left a legacy of modern management and marketing practices in the industry along with competent managers.

But more than this, as Muhammad Yunus hints in his Foreword, we get to see Habil Khurakiwala grow. We see the several lessons learnt from his father. We see the young guilt-ridden Habil needing to take decisions contrary to advice of customarily accepted advisors and turning out successful; we see his hesitation in attending the Key Opinion Leaders meeting in Chicago in March 2012 and, after attending it, enjoying the appreciation for “the kind of work we were doing”; we see him sitting in the anteroom of the revered Syedna in the late hours of the night, before he was permitted to go to the US for his post-graduation – and his decision to treat the university as a way station and not a destination. Right up to the time when he says: “Personally it has been a fascinating journey for me” we see the realisation of dreams, the fruition of concepts of a person whose major concern was about making drugs more accessible and affordable for the largest number of people. The only real legacy that he wants to leave behind for his children is the fundamental values of fairness, transparency, commitment to learning and research and contributing to human well-being “through the work we do”.

A rather poignant description, which bears mention in this review, relates to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi when the young Habil was just about six. He recalls that even at that age he could feel the deep sense of loss and resultant sadness that pervaded the family – but what was equally palpable was the fear. He does not hesitate to mention that that same sense of fear prevailed during the riots that came in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition. There was no let up in that deep feeling of insecurity in spite of the fact that Habil’s father was then the sheriff of Mumbai.

That has a lesson in itself. Antibiotics continue to haunt the security and balance in the human body through their side-effects and long-term damage; junk food and its terrible effects are another challenge to biomedical science. Perhaps, as Khorakiwala declares at the end of his book, for the pharma industry “the best is yet to come.”  We will keep our obese fingers crossed.

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