They’ve risen like a phoenix from the flame

Of course they’ve faced countless odds and hurdles along the way but these Puneites have undertaken a tough hike up the social and financial ladder for a glorious view from the height of success

The phrase ‘rags to riches’ signifies the journey from being totally obscure to achieving monetary and social recognition. If you thought the scenario only works in Bollywood films, then you are quite mistaken. People from different walks of life have gone through several stages of hardship before making their mark in their respective field. We know of and are inspired by APJ Abdul Kalam’s leadership and work. But did you know that he hailed from a very humble background. His father was a boat owner and, to help his family, Kalam worked as a newspaper vendor. Dhirubhai Ambani was a petrol pump attendant before he went on to become multi-billionaire. Pune’s own Prahlad Chhabria, owner of Finolex group of companies, worked as a cleaner in a small cloth shop when he was 12 and was given a salary of Rs 10, per month. There are several such stories about the rich and famous who had to face their share of struggle and hardships before climbing up the ladder of success.

TGS meets Puneites who weren’t quite born in the lap of luxury yet they had the courage to eke out way more than a living, overcoming poverty and harsh situations. They are the children of farmers, labourers and petty shop owners, who have seen severe hardships but today they have found a place in the front row despite all odds being stacked against them.

Perseverance and hard work pays
Farooque Poonawala, 68, owns two Raymond showrooms in city’s most sought after areas today. But to lead the luxurious life he has had to struggle and face hardships to the level that many might just think of giving up. He made it big all on the dint of his honesty, hard work and some foresight.

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Brought up in an orphanage in Mumbai, he has seen poverty very closely. He survived on sadaqah (charity given by fellow Muslims) and zakat (almsgiving in Islam) that he received in the orphanage. “I have faced rough days in my life. For food too, I was dependent on some generous strangers each day. I studied from the books that people donated and wore clothes that were thrown away but I always believed that perseverance and hard work would pay and that kept me going,” he says.

After completing his schooling from Mumbai, Farooque came to Pune to pursue further studies and started to look out for work opportunities. “I was not keen on taking up a job as the salary wouldn’t suffice my needs. I had to look after my basic necessities, pay the college fees and house rent. So I decided to do something on my own,” he shares. He started picking up a stock of cloth pieces from Mumbai markets and sold them in Pune. He would go door to door in order to sell his material and sometimes even sit by the roadside till he made enough money to survive the day. He would travel all around the city on a cycle. “My regular customers would be working women. I used to go to offices and banks to sell materials there. To get my payments cleared, I had to wait till the day they received their salary but they were my loyal customers, so I couldn’t demand money right away. This went on for a couple of years,” he recalls.

After graduating from Ness Wadia College, he decided to pursue business on a bigger scale. He borrowed some money from the market and started his first shop in Camp area. “It was difficult to get customers initially but with time I managed to build a good clientele,” he adds. Today, Farooque lives in a spatial apartment with his family on Boat Club Road.

My son inspired me to fight
Leaving an abusive relationship can be one of the hardest things a person does but staying strong, regaining the self-confidence and control over life is even tougher. City-based fashion designer and TV actor Aarnna Mali is an inspiration to many such women who face abuse every day. She was born and brought up in Mumbai and moved to Nashik when she was in the ninth standard. She was in the 11th standard when she fell in love with a guy in her college. After a few months of courtship, they decided to get married. “I was just 17 years old then so being in love and getting married to the same guy is something every woman fancies. I was living that dream,” she says. But little did she know that her dream would soon turn into a nightmare.

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The boy hailed from an orthodox, political family in Jalgaon, so they had to shift there after the wedding. Trouble started only a few days after marriage, when he started abusing her. Soon, she realised that she had no say in family matters and was not allowed to speak before elders. “It was all new to me. Women in that family were not allowed to work or even participate in any decision making. Although I was living in a palatial bungalow, with so many servants around, I felt like a nobody,” she says.

She would fear when the day came to end and her husband would get back home. He would come home drunk and hit her black and blue. “I was very naive at first and really didn’t know people like him existed. He would kick, slap, push and trip me over, throw things at me, and yell abuses. But I had no way out, so I kept quiet,” she recalls.

As time passed, things got worse. Many a times he would lock her out of the house at midnight. She would then stay at her friend’s house. The next morning her husband would come to pick her up with a bouquet of flowers and a promise that he would be a changed man. But that never happened. The violence became a daily occurrence if it did not involve several episodes in a single day.

Then, Aarnna got pregnant. She hoped things would change once her husband held the child in his hand but she was mistaken. “I was 19 when my son was born. All I wanted to do was keep him away from his father but things weren’t in my control. He was a womaniser and sometimes he would even hit me in front of our son,” she adds. She was now determined to not let her son go through the hardships that she faced. She sent him away to study at a school in Panchgani.

After 18 years of an abusive marriage, she saw a ray of light when her son returned. “He had completed his 10th standard. The first thing he told me was, ‘Mom let’s get away from here’. I was so low on confidence and emotionally unstable that I simply didn’t pay heed,” she says. But after a lot of convincing, she finally agreed.

She sold all her jewellery, caught a train to Pune, rented a flat at Pimple Saudagar and bought a stove and a mattress. “I had got nothing else with me. I survived on a cup of tea and omlette for a year and a half. Then, I took up a fashion designing course,” she says. After 19 years of abusive marriage she finally gathered courage to divorce her huband and got custody of her son.

She soon started stitching and tailoring clothes and the customers loved her designs. After a year or two, she saved enough money to rent out a space and start her own boutique. Aarnna soon became a popular designer in the area. “I had heard from a client that international designer Adam Saaks was coming to Pune for a fashion show. Many designers were sending him their work so I too thought of trying my luck. He liked my designs and I got an opportunity to collaborate with him on a project,” she says. This was the turning point in her career. Offers from various designers and celebrities started pouring in.

So far, she has designed for celebrities like Sara Jane Dias, Jackie Shroff, Geeta Basra and many more. She opened her boutique MACYS Store in Koregaon Park and has done plenty of fashion shows across the country.
 In 2015, she married the former CEO of DSK Toyota Jitendra Mali. She has now even taken up acting and plays a character based on Radhe Maa on &TV. She will also be seen playing Abhay Deol’s mother-in-law in his upcoming film Snafu. “When I look back now, it all seems like a miracle to me. I believe it’s important to stand up for yourself and my son gave me the inspiration to fight,” she adds.

Nobody wants to marry a farmer
Ride towards Phase-1 of the IT Park in Hinjawadi and you will see a left turn that shows an arrow towards Bodkewadi. Enter the lane and you will be surprised to see this part of the IT hub which consists of lush green fields.

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One of the farmers residing there is Dnyaneshwar Bodke. He hates subsidies and loan waivers, and keeps off politicians and their promise of freebies. He got together a group of farmers and founded Abhinav Farmers Club, who produces more than 13.2 million flowers and some 250 tonnes of vegetables. Its yearly turnover is a little above Rs 50 crore. The club uses drip irrigation and believes in keeping their costs under check.
 But all this wasn’t an easy ride. Dnyaneshwar’s family comprises of his parents and four sisters. In 1972, they owned 15 acres of land that had adequate water supply throughout the year. Later, due to lack of adequate farming knowledge and inability to harvest crops scientifically, his father had to sell five acres in 1982 to repay a debt of Rs 20,000, which had increased to Rs 1,04,000, including interest. All the money that was left was then spent on marrying off his two daughters over the next two years.

In order make ends meet, he started to learn typing, and took up a job with an architect. “It was much better than tending cattle in the field, and Rs 200 per month was a huge amount for me and my family those days,” he says. Dnyaneshwar had to wake up at 6 am and ride a bicycle for 75 minutes to reach his office in the heart of Pune from his home in Hinjawadi and come back home by 11 pm. The owner then suggested he learn interior designing which would earn him more money. “He paid the fees of Rs 17,000 which was an amount that I had never seen in my life until then. But I told him I would take up his offer only if he allowed me to repay the debt by paying Rs 50 from my monthly salary,” he says.

For the next ten years, he worked hard, designing the interiors for pizza joints, pubs and dance bars in Pune and Mumbai. “I was making good money and because of this the other members of my family stopped working. All the money I made was spent in household expenses,” he adds. After a few years, he thought of getting back to farming again. His father suggested he get married as nobody would want to marry a farmer. “The only reason why my in-laws agreed to the relationship was I had a steady job. But the fact that my father still owned 10 acres of land had always played on my mind,” he adds.

He then read about polyhouse farming that changed his life forever. But his family was against him taking up farming. “Nobody, except my mother, spoke to me for more than a week. They couldn’t understand why I was quitting a high-paying job, borrowing money from a bank and making a mess of their well-settled lives. But I knew what I was doing. They failed to see my vision,” he recalls.

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That was not the end of his problems though. Dnyaneshwar knew nothing about horticulture or floriculture and growing flowers in a controlled, greenhouse environment. He took up a two-day course at Talegaon’s Horticulture Centre and got recruited as a trainee at the centre. “I was not paid for six months but money was not a concern as I had savings on which my family could survive a year,” he says.

Dnyaneshwar learned all about drip irrigation, greenhouse plantation, preparing a risk bed, basal dose, preventing carnation plantations from mite attacks and various sprays and pesticides that help in good growth of carnations.

His next hurdle was convincing a bank to give him a loan of Rs 5,00,000 so that he could give shape to his dreams. “I had known for a fact that the demand for carnation flowers had been growing at a steady 20 per cent since 1995 and had a ready market in India as well as in Europe,” he says.

The bank manager was impressed when he pitched for the loan. In two months, his loan was sanctioned. “I earned Rs 4,88,000 after selling my produce and got a subsidy of Rs 1,22,000 from the National Horticulture Board for my efforts. I actually made a small profit after repaying the amount,” says Dnyaneshwar. He now grows vegetables, flowers, and owns a nursery where everything is grown in an organic manner. “Due to high cost and low revenue yield, traditional farming practices are not a viable option for farmers. Farming in polyhouses bears fruit in about 90 days, saving time,” he says. His club, at present, includes 4,600 farmers as members from all over Maharashtra apart from Bhopal, Gujarat and UP. They own 357 acres and have a self-help group, which has employed women to oversee the post-harvesting activities like packaging fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Nobody wanted to work with a woman broker
Though the brokerage sector itself has slowly seen the infusion of women over the last few years, it still remains largely male dominated. But Shanta Chhabra, the founder of Tulsi Properties, was determined not to be intimidated by the difficult working conditions and make a successful career.

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A lecturer in MBA colleges based in Udaipur, Shanta entered the real estate business after she and her husband shifted to Pune in 2005. Clueless about how to manage household expenses here, she thought about entering a business where there would be no investments required. “We were in Udaipur when my husband’s brothers and father passed away. At the time, we decided to move to Pune. He stayed back in Udaipur for a few months to wind things up there. In the meantime, I had to manage the house without any money in hand,” she shares. She rented a flat on NIBM road with just a bed and stove.

She felt that a real estate business could be started without any investment or risk. “The idea was to make more money in less time as I had to enrol my kids in school, pay their fees, the house rent, etc.,” she says. The biggest problem was dealing with other brokers. They didn’t cooperate at all. Her husband too, was apprehensive about her working in this field. “The road was not an easy one. Nobody wanted to work with a woman broker. People were amazed when I told them about what I did,” she adds. Soon, she got her first client who paid her the brokerage of Rs 12,000, which helped pay her daughter’s tuition fees.

She feels that her work has grown because of goodwill. Nevertheless, she is quick to admit that her journey has been like a roller-coaster ride. “In Udaipur, my husband had a fashion designing business. It was a small city so people there knew us well. We were like celebrities there. Whenever there was a party people would invite us. In Pune, we were nobody and that’s what drove me towards working harder,” she shares.
 After a few years, her husband joined her in the business and now they work as a team.

She takes care of the office and administrative work while he manages the field work. “The broker tag does not matter, as long as there are financial rewards for my hard work,” she says.

Money and satisfaction are equally important

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Some of the richest people in the world were born with a silver spoon. Then there are those like chartered accountant Shiwaji Zaware, who started with nothing and through hard work, talent, grit, and a bit of luck, managed to rise to the very top. Today, he owns Zaware’s Professional Academy and is an accomplished CA.

Coming from a remote village Gargundi near Ahmednagar, he completed his primary and secondary schooling in a Marathi medium Zilla Parishad school. He walked more than 7 kms barefoot every day in order to reach school. It was during this period that social activist Karmveer Bhaurao Patil opened a high school in the nearby area. After completing HSC he wanted to shift to Pune for higher studies. “The village comprised of just 550 people and anyone who studied till 12th took up a job as a primary school teacher. They didn’t know if any other professions even existed. So everyone was taken aback when I told them that I wanted to study further,” he says. His father was a retired government servant who got Rs 600 as pension and his elder brother was a primary school teacher. There weren’t enough funds to provide for his sister’s schooling so she dropped out when she was in the fifth standard.

Shiwaji then completed his graduation in Commerce from a Marathi-medium college in Ahmednagar and came to Pune. His father started a small printing business in order to make ends meet. He enquired about the course for CA and stayed at the Firodia Hostel with five other roommates. “They would make fun of me as I hailed from a small village and spoke in Marathi. All of them were very fluent in English and confident even though they came from humble settings. This lowered my morale but I was never going to give up,” Shiwaji adds.

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He worked harder, day and night, to score better marks, whereas his room-mates flunked the exams. Shiwaji then moved to Mumbai and got admission at a reputed institute. “My strength was my dedication and optimism, while my only weakness was English,” he says. He also faced a major financial crunch while pursuing his studies. He lived in the mega polis as a paying guest and didn’t have enough money to pay for his dinner. “I used to have a late lunch so that I didn’t feel hungry later,” he shares. Not having enough money to seek private tuitions, he worked hard and didn’t sleep for weeks when exams neared.

In 1970, during his second articleship he was hired as an auditor at Fergusson College. It was during this period that he caught a fraud and reported it to the authorities. “Devadutta Dabholkar was the principal then and he had given fees concession application forms to some students. He charged a fee of Rs 50 on each form and the cashier turned it into Rs 150. I suspected the change in the ink colour and reported it to the principal,” he says. For his honesty, he was given a sum of Rs 100 as reward. “I was on top of the world! The money bought me dinners for quite a few days after,” he laughs.

He completed his CA in 1972 and decided to teach other students who come to the city from villages. He was offered to take up a project in France but he declined solely for the purpose of teaching young boys like himself. “Money and satisfaction are both important. I loved teaching and had made up my mind to stick with that. Today, there are over 9,000 students who have passed from my institute,” he shares.

Originally published on The Golden Sparrow

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