Book Review: Epic Tale of Squabbling Indian Family

In 1998, Hamish McDonald, then the India correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, published The Polyester Prince, a wide-ranging biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, the free-wheeling patriarch and founder of the Ambani empire, which had grown from petrol station attendant to pushcart seller of polyester textiles into one of India's biggest conglomerates – Reliance Industries Ltd. The Indian edition of the book was promptly blocked by the family and never printed. It has been unavailable in India for the past 12 years.

McDonald, today the Asia-Pacific editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, has now returned to the subject with a new book, Mahabharata in Polyester, that claims an even wider stage than the original about Dhirubai, and takes in the feud between the world's richest brothers, Anil and Mukesh, who succeeded their father and staged a bitter eight-year rivalry over the conglomerate after the father died in 2002. Although McDonald, at the time of the publication of the original a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, has included 16 chapters of the original in the current volume, the family has chosen not to block its publication.

It is easy to see why the Ambanis sought to have the original book banned, and how they had the clout to do it. It is a tale of swashbuckling entrepreneurship by a patriarch with a relatively slippery relationship to principle. It includes revelations of too-close relationships with politicians who could and did do well by doing good for Dhirubai. It includes allegations of homicide as Dhirubai allegedly sought to murder his way out of an uncomfortable rivalry in the polyester trade.

Not for nothing did McDonald's title refer to the Mahabharata, one of the two major epics of Indian literature, which describes a marathon battle between two protagonists, Arjun and Karna, using every imaginable weapon from swords to rocks to even trees as well as hand-to-hand combat. The Ambanis are hardly alone. The Birlas, the Bajajs, the Mansukhanis and many more of India's richest families have fallen into internecine squabbles on the death of the patriarch. But the Ambanis, the richest, seem to have staged the bitterest. Another unarmed battle in the saga "describes two combatants boxing with clenched fists and fighting with kicks, finger strikes, knee strikes and headbutts." That is an only slightly exaggerated description of the squabble that has gone on between Anil and Mukesh Ambani, who stopped speaking to each other in 2005 in the battle over their father's shares.

It is a juicy tale indeed. The feud, which saw Anil take Reliance Natural Resources and Mukesh taking Reliance, bogged down India's stock markets and stalled a long series of deals over gas finds. At one point, the frustrated Indian Supreme Court asked the brothers' mother to step in to try to solve the impasse.

"Each played a constant game of one-upmanship against the other, "McDonald writes. "When Mukesh bought the Mumbai Indians team in a new professional cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League, Anil was reported to be studying the purchase of an English first division team such as Newcastle United. When Mukesh announced bigger and better plans for his petroleum, retail and land divisions, Anil expanded his ties with the more glamorous worlds of communications, entertainment and media."

In June of 2008, Anil attempted a breathtaking corporate maneuver that could have made him the world's richest man, reaching agreement with the South African cellular company MTN to merge businesses, combining India's second-largest cellular network with MTN's 68 million subscribers in the Middle East and Africa. Mukesh, however – who "happened" to be vacationing in southern Africa at the time, immediately wrote to MTN to assert that under the terms of the June 2005 division of their father's businesses, each brother had the first right of refusal in the event of any proposed sale of assets by the other. That put an end to Anil's cellular plans.

In May, prodded by the courts, the government and presumably their mother, the two finally agreed to make peace, with the rival Reliance groups announcing that they would scrap 2006 business pacts that had fuelled the rivalry between them, saying they were "hopeful and confident that all these steps will create an overall environment of harmony, co-operation and collaboration between the two groups."

But "Anyone who thinks that Sunday's announcement of a so-called peace deal between India's warring Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, signals a family love-in must surely be mistaken, wrote John Elliott, whose blog, "Riding the Elephant," appears in Asia Sentinel. "Now their rivalry can move openly into the marketplace because the gist of Sunday's announcement was that they have cancelled non-compete agreements reached after their 2005 split."

"Freedom to enter each other's business areas will of course lead not only to visible competition but also no doubt to a continuation of the ruthless behind-the-scene influence seeking and peddling for which they are both renowned (as was their father). That could also hit other companies in areas that they target."

So it appears there are plenty of chapters in the Mahabharata remaining to be written. In the meantime, for anyone wanting to catch up on the story so far, McDonald's 400-page account, which in parts reads like a novel, is an essential place to start, and one that tells as much about Indian society as it does about the Ambanis. And now they can read it in India.