Hailing from a highly educated, partition-affected family with a rich musical and cultural lineage, being a pioneer of the computer revolution in India, Ajai Chowdhry, one of the six founding members of HCL (Hindustan Computers Limited) continues his magnificent journey. In a conversation with Sudeshna Das, consulting editor at EFY, he shares the tales of his life
Ajai Chowdhry comes from a patriotic family where art and music were an integral part of life. Before India’s partition in 1947, Ajai’s father worked as a flourishing criminal lawyer in what is now known as Pakistan. As a president of the Congress at the then Abbottabad, he was deeply involved in the Indian freedom movement and came in touch with Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who was commonly known as Frontier Gandhi.
Ajai’s parents shifted from Abbottabad in Pakistan to India along with their six children after the partition. “They came to India in difficult circumstances with nothing in hand, only the children on a train, which was pretty much the last train out of Pakistan. I was told that my parents got separated from my siblings into different bogeys and they had no idea what was happening to their children. On the way, my grandmother died. Finally, they landed in Delhi and started living in an old dirty house that belonged to a Muslim family that had left India. After a while, they moved to a refugee camp,” Ajai tells while narrating the post-partition crisis faced by his family.
Immediately after shifting to India, Ajai’s father got a job related to integration of the princely states after Independence and shifted to Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Ajai recalls, “My family moved to a fantastic place on the bank of beautiful Nakki Lake and their life changed. They all settled down in Mount Abu and I was born there in 1950. I have never been to Mount Abu since then; I’ve just been hearing beautiful stories about how fantastic that home was. Someday, I shall visit that home. It’s on my bucket list.”
“I grew up in a very different family environment. My parents were fond of art and music. My father, Jai Krishna Chowdhry Habeeb, was a reasonably known Urdu poet. My sister used to put the ghazals that he wrote to tune. We would have mushairas at home. I was introduced to classical music at a young age during our stay in Rewa. That place was near Maihar. Therefore, my father used to take us to visit Maihar Gharana and listen to music at each possible opportunity. I also got the opportunity to listen to the famous sarod maestro Allauddin Khan’s music. Because of my upbringing in such a musical environment, I also got fond of music. I tried my hand at tabla, but it just didn’t work out. Then I learned something interesting. I learned how to play tabla by mouth. I remember doing performances on stage with my sister. She would sing and I would play tabla with my mouth.” — Ajai Chowdhry
Remembering the early years
In 1955, Ajai’s father joined the administrative service as an IAS officer. He says, “It took the entire family on a different journey as my father chose a state called Vindhya Pradesh for his first posting. Later, that place was merged with Madhya Bharat and Bhopal to form Madhya Pradesh. As an IAS officer, my father had to move from one place to another in Vindhya Pradesh. Most of those small places were underdeveloped. The first posting was to a small place called Shahdol that did not even have tap water.”
From Shahdol, Ajai’s family moved to Nowgong. Life was better there as the family started staying in a huge British-era residence with a beautiful orchard. The house had a swimming pool and tennis court. Ajai started learning those sports there only. However, shortly thereafter, his father was posted to Rewa near Allahabad. Ajai began his schooling there in a Hindi-medium school run by the queen of Rewa, Praveen Kumari.
Ajai’s life was quite eventful at Rewa. He used to visit the maharaja’s palace to see his pet, Mohan, a white tiger. The maharaja also had a collection of fancy cars. Ajai was quite fascinated by them. He still remembers that the bonnet of a car was adorned with cut diamonds.
While remembering his unique childhood experiences, Ajai tells the story of his pet, which was a tiger cub. “We used to play with the cub and sometimes got scratched. But he didn’t last long, because those days there was the concept of spraying DDT, which was very dangerous for animals as they used to lick it unknowingly and die. Exactly the same happened to that poor fellow. I was so upset that my father got it stuffed and gave it to me as a gift to keep it in my room.”
Ajai developed a fondness for pets since then. Later, he got an Alsatian as a pet. To date, Ajai keeps pet dogs at home.
After staying a few years in Rewa, his father retired and the family shifted to Jabalpur. He was admitted to the Christ Church School, Jabalpur, for his formal education.
School days were a golden time for Ajai, as he recalls, “I had a great time in school. I was never a great student but I was fond of doing many things. I used to play table tennis till late evening and I became very good at it. I was number two among the junior table tennis players in the state.” He was also an avid reader and a movie buff.
Ajai took an active part in NCC, which was compulsory in his school those days. He had to go out of the city for NCC activities, which he enjoyed a lot. “I made some very good friends, one of whom, Sharat Saxena, has remained a friend since then. He was my classmate,” he explains.
Ajai remembers being taught by a very sharp mathematics teacher, called Guruji, who used to catch hold of Ajai when he couldn’t perform. Ajai also mentions an amazing English teacher, Mr Shinde. He used to teach the language in an interesting way using theatrical and storytelling techniques. His teaching helped Ajai to get a command over the language.
Ajai completed his schooling in 1966. After that, he attended Jabalpur Engineering College and received a Bachelor of Engineering (Electronics and Telecom) degree in 1971. Later, he did an Executive Program at Michigan where the famous Dr C.K. Prahlad taught him.
Shaping life with great experiences
Fortunately, Ajai was surrounded by family members and friends who helped him to inculcate nice hobbies and interests. For example, Ajai was influenced a lot by his elder brother, who encouraged him to read different kinds of books. Ajai started with Enid Blyton and went on to Zane Grey, Max Brand, and a whole bunch of western books. Gradually, it became his absolute passion, which continues to date. Ajai’s amazing collection of books is quite enviable.
“We all came to Delhi to attend a DCM conference. After that, we were invited by Shiv Nadar to his home. He told us that he was going to start a new business with Arjun Malhotra. He asked interested people to join his business. Initially, ten to twelve people were interested and I was one of them. However, after assessing the risk, only four dedicated people, including me, joined them. I was too young then, so I had nothing to lose. We decided to start our own computer business with the name Hindustan Computers Limited (HCL).”
Ajai remembers going on jungle safaris during his school and college days. He remembers his amazing travel experiences around Jabalpur, such as the elephant safari at Kanha, visiting Marble Rocks on a full moon night, and the boat ride in Narmada near Marble Rocks. Thus, Ajai developed his love for nature and wildlife.
Wildlife photography is also one of his interests. His friend Rajnikanth Yadav helped him a lot to hone his photographic skills. Ajai also posed as a model for Rajnikanth’s photography. One of the pictures was published in The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine.
Ajai mentions, “ I made friends with one of my neighbours, Chintan Sagreiya, who was a good student. I had another friend, Ashok, who was also a brilliant student. I used to learn a lot from both Ashok and Chintan. Ashok and I got along very well because we both had a strong interest in space science. In those days, my room was full of pictures of space. I used to write to NASA and NASA would very kindly respond and send me huge posters and pictures.”
Ajai reminisces about the day when Armstrong landed on the moon. In those days, television was not yet introduced in India. “The only thing that you had was a basic radio, which you would use somehow to tune to the frequency to get the broadcast from America. Both Ashok and I tuned our radios and listened to the broadcast when Armstrong landed on the moon. My fascination with space has continued since then,” he explains.