For a variety of factors, some our own doing and some a matter of fate, Pakistan is not considered a particularly business-friendly country. Certainly, not many would think of us as a nation of entrepreneurs, innovators, or businessmen. A book describing itself as “the memoir of one of Pakistan’s most prominent businessmen” is therefore the kind of publishing event that virtually jumps out from bookshelves to intrigue our imagination and whet our curious appetites.
There is no question that Sadruddin Hashwani, the narrator of this memoir, is a towering figure. You may take issue with his aggressive business tactics, his skill at cutting corners, or his willingness to look the other way, but you cannot argue with what he has built, nurtured, and maintained — Pakistan’s leading collection of hotels with world-class standards of hospitality and comfort, spread across all the major cities. This would be considered an exceptionally high level of business success anywhere in the world, but especially so in Pakistan’s unstable political and social climate and chronically struggling economy.
The story begins with family origins, starting from Hashwani’s great-great-grandfather Mukhi Tharoo, a respected Ismaili Muslim who accompanied Aga Khan I on his migration from Iran to India during the 19th century. While the Aga Khan travelled onwards to Bombay, Mukhi Tharoo settled down in coastal Balochistan (either Lasbela or Sonmiani). His son, Mukhi Hashoo, moved to Karachi where he started a business trading in wool and animal skin and quickly built a reputation for efficiency, honesty, and commitment. His endeavours brought him into contact with a major British firm and he was appointed their sole representative, procuring local goods for export to Europe. This was the spark that ignited the Hashwani family’s business destiny.
Hashwani’s account is fluent and absorbing. The prose carries professional flair and polish, for which his co-writer, Ashok Malik, is properly acknowledged. Hashwani must be a skilled and natural talker, because he addresses the reader with rich story-telling detail. Despite its meandering anecdotes and tangents, there is still an overall clarity and coherence.
At times, however, the monologue becomes a bit self-conscious, even self-indulgent. At one point, for example, Hashwani goes out of his way to disparage jealousy and envy as unpardonably un-Islamic emotions, and one is left shaking one’s head at how such a competitively driven tycoon could himself claim to be free of these qualities. Indeed, how could any human being, given that these traits are quintessential to the human condition? The author’s differences with his brother Akbar, which have been the subject of a public feud, are also glibly dismissed with the line that “we have gone our own ways.” At moments like these, the book seems less an open-hearted memoir and more of a disingenuous lecture.
The book’s cover is another case in point. In his acknowledgments, Hashwani himself observes that “in my lifetime I have never read a book.” It is strange, then, that he would choose as the book’s cover a stiff portrait of himself with an imposing array of fully stacked library bookshelves in the background. Perhaps a close-up of Hashwani’s face set in artistic profile, or some hotelier motif, or even an abstract rendering of struggle and success, might have felt more authentic.
Nevertheless, it is easy to brush aside these irritants and lie back to enjoy, appreciate, and learn from the journey of a lifetime that Hashwani takes us on. By the time he was born, in 1940, his father had expanded and established the family business into a cotton trading concern. Still, these were the 1950s, and Hashwani, who is the second-youngest of seven siblings, had a modest childhood growing up in Karachi’s timeworn locality of Kharadar. He helped out with house chores and attended the evening shift of a government boys’ school. He also fell in love with cricket, and toyed with the possibility of making a career out of fast-bowling.
In 1958, aged eighteen, he began his apprenticeship as a trader and businessman. Hashwani started out as a contractor transporting grain shipments from Karachi to various destinations in Balochistan. He showed the Midas Touch of business early and soon moved on to steel and cotton trading.
In the early 1970s, when the Peoples’ Party government nationalised the country’s leading commercial assets, Hashwani lost the cotton business that he had helped build under the leadership of his older brother, Hasan Ali. Yet it is a testament to his proud, resilient, and enterprising nature that he rebounded quickly. Thinking out of the box, he began acquiring prime real estate in Karachi. He also purchased struggling commercial ventures, including a textile mill and a cinema. All this while, he kept itching to do something bold and brilliant. Gambling on tourism as an emerging market, Hashwani decided to build a five-star hotel in partnership with an international franchise. It was a competitive environment, as major international chains such as Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt Regency were showing interest in Karachi. Hashwani succeeded in securing the Holiday Inn franchise – and the rest is history.
Hashwani’s rise to business stardom includes a variety of encounters — ranging from good to bad and horrible, and from inspiring to hilarious — with the who’s who of Pakistani society. There is, of course, no way to verify the veracity of all he says, and if there is a massaging of some facts, that is perhaps only to be expected. An autobiography, after all, is only one person’s account of events that have touched many others, and on which there are bound to be differing points of view. Sadruddin Hashwani has lived a significant and consequential life that offers many lessons. This is one viewpoint you won’t want to miss.