What are the chances of you agreeing to do an interaction with your team, or with somebody from the media, on the day you are expecting to get a Covid-19 test done? Or what are the chances of you getting the coronavirus test done in the middle of a conversation with someone from the media?
This happens to be Sunil Raina, president and business head, Lava International. With Lava now manufacturing under the Performance Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for smartphones, he is one of the busiest guys on the circuit today. When the team at Electronics For You magazine approached Lava International, it was made clear that finding more than fifteen minutes of Sunil Raina’s time would be difficult. But with the success stories of Lava doing the rounds, we were keen to deep dive into the lives and traits of people who are the pillars behind such success. One of those being Sunil Raina, the man who was forced out of his home in his childhood, the one who came from an Urdu educational background and had to learn how to read and write everything in English, one who slept in gurudwaras and dharamshalas while job hunting. This is Sunil Raina’s story!
The day I was giving my eleventh standard exam, there were gunshots firing inside the campus of our school. I, or anyone else, could not give the exam that day as we all ran to save our lives. The day we left Kashmir for Jammu we learnt that another Hindu living near our house was dragged out of his home and shot dead. There has been a lot of violence that I have witnessed in my life,” says Raina informing about his life incidents.
Belonging to a lower middle class family, Sunil Raina was born and brought up in a beautiful little village situated in the land that is referred to as heaven on Earth – Kashmir.
He is a Kashmiri Brahmin, one of those who were forced to leave Kashmir amid rising geopolitical tensions and violence that started around 1989. Raina was in the ninth standard when his family of six comprising mom, dad, grandma, and three brothers decided that it was time to leave Kashmir and head to Jammu in search of a better life. His dad, despite the financial disability that the family would have to face upon leaving Kashmir, was sure about the relocation. One, he had no choice, and two, he wanted to educate his children for their betterment.
“I was in the eleventh standard when this trouble in Kashmir started taking an aggressive form. We practically left Kashmir behind with just a few clothes. It was a bus journey, a long one, one that took us away from home,” explains Raina.
While Raina fondly remembers his school days back in Kashmir, he has not been able to get in touch with the teachers or friends of that school till date. However, he cherishes being able to meet a childhood friend from those days. This friend is now a maulavi at one of the mosques.
Raina’s schooling was split over Kashmir and Jammu. He attended a school that was located in a small village of Kashmir till the ninth standard and did rest of his schooling and graduation in Jammu.
“My school story is very different from what most people can imagine. The village my school was situated in did not have electricity or roads or tap water. It was a typical village of India. The only school we had in the village was an Urdu medium school run by the J&K government. English medium schools were completely out of reach for most of the families like ours. The number of children studying in that school was much more than the building had space for. I remember sitting outside in the open and being educated amid the beautiful Kashmir surroundings,” recalls Raina.
He adds, “It was in tenth standard that we moved to Srinagar in Kashmir. My dad got me admitted to an English medium school. That meant that the student who had read everything in Urdu till now had to start following English for every subject. We, as students, were introduced to English alphabets in the sixth standard. Getting admission in an English medium school made life tough initially.”
Learning English was one among many struggles
Raina, who has done marketing for big companies including the likes of Airtel, Telenor, Reliance Communications, and Hughes Telecommunications, found learning English to be the first biggest challenge of his life. Studying everything in Urdu throughout most of his schooling, he found the language of English as completely alien.
“Although I was able to give exams in the Urdu language, teachers in that school only taught in English! As a result, I was not able to perform well in the exams. This was when I decided to pick up on the language and develop it as one of my strengths. In fact, English was the language that was the first indicator that a much larger world existed out there,” he says.
“I, for most of the time, was not able to make sense of what the teachers or my fellow students were saying. It was a tricky situation there,” recalls Raina who has been the general manager of marketing at Reliance Communications.
Raina’s schooling was spread over three schools. One in the small village of Kashmir he was born in, the other in Srinagar, and the last in Jammu. The life of the Raina family was filled with struggles when they moved to Jammu from Kashmir. Being referred to as a refugee in his own country, Raina’s classroom, when he was in the twelfth standard, happened to be a tent.
Such open schools were started by the authorities back in the day for people migrating to Jammu from Kashmir. However, this was just a small part of Raina’s daily life. Struggling with finances, Raina’s father was constantly advised by his new friends to employ his three kids (all sons) in order to meet the family expenses as he was the only one supporting a family of six, which included Raina’s grandmother. Raina’s father was of a different view altogether and wanted his sons to finish their education before they started working.
“I have never seen someone as committed as my father. Despite all the challenges and financial disabilities, he made sure all of us three brothers never had to compromise on education. He made it clear to all in the family that until we finished our schooling, none would even think of working. I am, and will always be, thankful for what he did for us. Those were the toughest times and I never saw that man complain about a single thing,” explains Raina.
The Raina family used to live in a spacious house back in the days at Kashmir, and when they migrated to Jammu, all they could afford was an 8×8 room. The kids had to study in the same room where their mother cooked and grandmother rested. A lot of other families that had also migrated to Jammu had already started employing the sons of their families in order to survive financially. Raina’s father, on the other hand, believed in long-term goals and was sure at all times that education was more necessary than being able to survive financially in the short term.
My father’s message, in simple words, was, “Complete your education first and do whatever you want to do later on!”
Raina’s childhood were those days when, forget OTT or the Internet, even getting a good reception of national TV channels run by the government was a mountainous task. He recollects that the only cartoon series he remembers from his childhood was the popular He-Man. He, sometimes with his brothers and sometimes alone, used to go to a neighbour’s house every Sunday to watch it.
He says, “I remember vaguely that the intro of this cartoon happened to be a statement like The Master of the Universe,” and Raina today has truly become a master of his trade!
“There was not a single comic series available in Kashmir back then. Owning a TV was like leading a super luxurious life. We had to go to a neighbour’s house to see the series every Sunday,” Raina’s eyes sparkled as he recalled those precious moments from his teenage years watching He-Man, and while he saw some other cartoon series as well, this is the only one he remembers clearly.
Sholay, the iconic blockbuster Bollywood film, also brings back cherishable memories for Raina. His family owned a tape-recorder (the one that plays audio cassette tapes), and Raina would play the audio cassette of Sholay every now and then. Raina, who has never seen the movie even once on a TV, remembers all its dialogues from just listening to it on the tape-recorder!