Profile: Bano Bhimjee of IFG Triumph
When I met Bano Bhimjee, on a clement February morning, I secretly chided myself for not doing this earlier. Somehow it struck me as odd, irresponsible even, that nothing substantial had ever been written about this amazing, truly humane lady. At 84, Bano is nothing short of eidetic; searching buried depths of subconscious memory to unearth anecdotes and history, still full of enquiry and irrepressible energy. Always self-effacing, expressing an almost reflexive disdain for pretence and class-consciousness, it is perhaps inevitable then that in this era of self-publicity, Bano would be little known.
As I sit waiting for her in the living room of her portion of the Bhimjee apartment – which she refers to as ‘diwaan-e-aam,’ while referring to her son’s portion of the flat as ‘diwaan-e-khaas’ – I see a gardener lazily watering potted plants in the lawn-sized balcony outside that offers a panaromic, even if polluted view of Karachi. If I crane my neck just slightly, I can see Bano’s room next to it, the door to it ajar, and a gray-haired woman within seated on the floor studiously sewing a garment. She peers at Bano as she walks out and then hands over her handbag, which she obviously sees to, with nurturing authority.
Bano enters the living room; a shortish, fuzzy, white-haired woman clad in an orange sari. She looks at me with eyes that are at once pensive and searching. She clasps both my hands wordlessly and smiles. “Excuse me,” she says, a moment later, pops some pills in her mouth, and we begin the interview.
“I had three sons. My youngest son, Kabir passed away in 1978 – he had a hole in his heart,” Bano says. “We took him everywhere. The doctors in New York said he had a 10% chance of survival, that he would live barely six months longer. I left it to God and he went on to live for 13 years more. He was gifted, very intelligent. Without any tutoring he could speak, read and write English.” She pauses, rubbing her palm with her thumb, her voice straining. “After he passed away, I was naturally, very lonely. So my husband (insurance dynamo and philanthropist, Roshan Ali Bhimjee) pushed me to go to the factory.”
She continues, “My husband Roshan used to travel – alone mostly – and when abroad he would ask me what he should bring for me. At that time we only knew Marks and Spencers. So I would tell him to get me things, including undergarments. Then one day a German friend of his asked why he didn’t get into the undergarment business himself. Initially Roshan laughed it off, saying, ‘What do I, a PR man, know about this.’ But then the German introduced him to Spiz Hosser of Triumph. Hosser was not averse to setting up a factory in Pakistan.” And so, in 1971 IFG was born – and the rest is history.
Bano shares an anecdote about the IFG’s early days. “One day Roshan was in Hungary regarding factory work. He laid out samples of undergarments on the bed in his hotel room, mulling over what to carry and what not. A cleaning lady came into the room and her eyes widened in shock – she must have wondered what he was up to,” Bano, chuckles. “At first my husband played along, but then told her it was all business.”
After a short while we settle into Bano’s car, and make our way to the IFG factory. Along the way Bano tells me that when IFG was first set up, little did Roshan know to how many women he would end up offering life-long employment and a productive haven to. The drive takes about half hour, and I learn more about Bano’s life.
Bano was born in the Burmese capital Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. She was the only daughter of four brothers and by her own admission, her father’s favourite. Had he been alive longer, Bano says, she might have been “a spoilt child.” Her father ran a “very nice” crockery shop she tells me, but when the Japanese invaded Burma he was compelled to send his family to India. Later, like many others at that time, he tried to reach them, forced by the logistics of war to walking to the Indian border. He died on the way. Bano and Roshan’s families were close friends in Rangoon, where Roshan worked in insurance. Bano was studying at the Wilson College in Bombay when Roshan proposed. They got engaged and subsequently married in Bombay. Roshan was, by now, a seasoned insurance man. Marriage proved blissful, and a congenial couple, they had many friends, including the literati of the day: scholars and revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hassan and Majaz.
But their life was to change irrevocably – Bano tells me how one remark during the Independence riots of 1947 became the trigger for this life-altering shift.
“One day Roshan came home very disappointed. He had many non-Muslim friends and one of them said to him, ‘Tum musalmaan nahin lagtay ho, tum hum jaisay lagtay ho.’ Roshan responded, ‘We are all Indians – what difference does religion make?’ But after that, there was no turning back for him. He said to me, ‘Jahan izzat nahin wahan kuch nahin.’ And then our future was Pakistan.”
When we arrive at IFG – a white-washed set of modest buildings reminiscent of an earlier era – I feel as if I am 16 again, back in school at break-time. Young girls litter the expanse; some in groups of three or four, chattering while munching on packets of chips or cellophane-wrapped packs of biscuits; some take short walks along the driveway, their kameezes fluttering in the warm breeze. Others sit placidly on wooden benches shaded by old trees, and still others talk on cell-phones. “It’s their tea-break,” Bano tells me.
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