The Corporate Khan — Irfan of Hindustan Lever

I am genuinely at a loss to write about Irfan Khan. Yet, feel the compelling urge to do so. The reason for that is not far to seek. Irfan, or Khan-saab as most of us youngsters at Hindustan Lever called him, was the quintessential affable soul, whom everyone loved to make fun of or even criticised behind his back but were genuinely fond of. This was true both of his colleagues as well as his friends and contacts in media and politics.

He was a rare Corp Comm guy — who could get away dealing with equal irreverence with his bosses, peers and senior journalists.Many considered him to be a blabber mouth — but never held it against him as they knew it was all well meaning and there was no malice in what he gargled out. As soon as he would open a conversation with his signature “Arre bhai…” people would drop their guard and barriers would melt.

If media carried a negative story about the company — he had the uncanny ability to convince his bosses that it was in their interest not to get an overtly favourable coverage. I am sure — not all of them were convinced but no one would have the heart to call him out.

On one occasion, an acerbic Chairman of HLL, seeing Khan-saab sitting on the front row of a gathering with a dictaphone — wryly quipped, despite technology Irfan not only manages to quote me wrong in spirit but also in content. Any one else in his place — would have shrunk into his seat — but Khan-saab laughed it off with a loud guffaw in public.

He was also prone to fits of temper. My first encounter with him as a cub Management Trainee was in circa 1985. The Indian Science Congress was being held in Pune — to be inaugurated by the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The then Chairman of Hindustan Lever was part of the PM’s Science Advisory Council. So he wished to showcase HLL’s Research and Development prowess. Khan-saab came for an advance recce. He was singularly unimpressed by the creative rendition of the advertising agency — who had used Mudras of a Danseuse’s hand to depict different facets of technological innovations.

The Agency’s Accounts Head — a Parsi gentleman (Fali) made the mistake of trying to educate Irfan on the aesthetics and blew his fuse in the process. Khan-saab came fuming to my office — dialled Bombay and read a riot act to the Head of the Agency — then generally regarded as the “God” of the advertising industry. The goatee-bearded doyen rushed to Pune late at night for saving the day before the Chairman and Prime Minister arrived for the inauguration.

Another occasion was when Khan-saab innocently bragged to one of his friends in the PR Community about how HLL was planning to take on a competitor in the Oral Care category. The next thing he knew was this friend “rogered” (pun intended) him by spilling the beans to the other company, which had its headquarters just behind Lever House and bagged its PR account. What followed is a minor atomic explosion on 4th floor East Wing of Lever House, with Irfan threatening the PR veteran with legal action, public shaming, complaining to his international associates etc.

Irfan had joined HLL during the days of the Emergency — when the company was on the watch list of the younger scion of the Gandhi dynasty. He was then with the Indian Express and had many friends among the JP (Jayprakash Narayan) acolytes. If memory serves me right, he had also worked for Dosu Karaka’s Current (or was it Blitz?). Most of them congregated at the Embassy Restaurant in Connaught Place every morning. Khan-saab would often drop in there, when in Delhi, to gather the latest gossip from the capital.

Later he would return to Mumbai and regale his bosses and friends with the juicy tidbits, which they will mostly discount but listen to him nevertheless for entertainment. He loved his Cigars. One dear friend would always make it a point to get him a couple of Davidoffs, whenever he went overseas (not very common those days — when one had all of US$ 500 as BTQ allowance to splurge).

Remember an occasion during the first NDA regime — when he brought the Chairman of HLL for a promised 1-on-1 with L K Advani. The Chairman knew Khan only too well . So, he told me on the side — “listen I don’t expect Irfan to get us beyond Advani’s chaprasi, so instead of waiting let us plan a good lunch”. Sure enough, Khan-saab returned with a suggestion of meeting Sudheendra Kulkarni as a first step to prepare the ground. Of course, the Chairman summarily rejected the idea. Undeterred by the set back Khan-saab joined us for lunch — sharing some more Lutyens’ grapevine tales. Irfan then held forth to this highly anglicised gentleman why instead of the Taj he should have actually gone to Jama Masjid for Biriyani at Karim’s to know how the real India eats.

Though the same Chairman, who would often have a joke at Irfan’s expense, was the one to give him a formal extension retirement — something very uncommon at HLL.

It was on the same visit — I recall — while coming back from lunch to the company’s pad at IIC, Khan-saab whispered to me — “Dekho Bhai, I am going to retire soon — if you are interested I can recommend your name as my successor”. Needless to say, I did not take him seriously then. But, in hindsight, I feel he saw something that was unknown even to me.

Khan-saab was also one of the early readers of my Blog. Though he would almost never write back — whenever we ran into each other he would have a comment or two to offer.

I was not aware of his illness. Though I know two of his closest friends and neighbours, even they never mentioned. Probably, Khan-saab wished to keep it that way.

Pity I could not make it to his Condolence Meeting. Ran into two former senior colleagues at Delhi airport this afternoon, who were travelling to Mumbai only to attend his memorial.

Khan-saab is one of those few human beings — remembering whom will always bring a smile to the faces of people who knew him. I am sure friends who have preceded him to his next destination — will eagerly await his arrival to get a low-down of what has been happening on earth in the other universe of politics, media and ex Lever’s buddies.

Post Script: Whenever posed with an inconvenient or sensitive question about HLL’s past – Irfan would say “wait for my book…”. Not sure if he was writing one – I suspect not – but if has left behind a diary or manuscript that would make an interesting read indeed.

You can read more by Sandip Ghose at his Blog: Right Angle

Writer, current-affairs columnist, and political commentator. Public speaker, Corporate Strategy Advisor and Practising Life Coach (ICF-PCC)