Jhunjhunwala’s Real Bull Run

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It took 17 years for him to become a father and it beat anything that all his thousands of crores could buy.

Most women accept discomfort as an essential part of the pregnancy ritual, but it takes altogether something else to survive what Rekha Jhunjhunwala went through. In 2003, 39-year-old Rekha, wife of India’s most famous investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, finally became pregnant for the first time. But by the final trimester in early 2004, her baby was in serious trouble: it was sliding down the birth canal far too fast. Too late to surgically keep the baby in, too early to bring it out, Rekha’s doctor gave her a single prescription: be confined to bed till delivery date. “I didn’t bathe for three months,” she says. “It was difficult to do anything, my legs were elevated all the time, and because I was always lying down, after some time I did everything on my side, even eating. But I was determined.” Nishtha was born on 30 June 2004. Her brothers, twins Aryaman and Aryavir, were born at 12.29 am and 12.30 am on 2 March 2009. It took the millionaire couple 22 years of marriage to complete their family.

The latest Forbes India rich list counts 49-year-old Jhunjhunwala as the 58th richest man in the country, with a fortune of $915 million (Rs 4,209 crore). “I have far less than people think, far more than I need. My wealth fluctuates by 5 per cent every week,” he says. But even an amateur guesstimate of listed and unlisted investments, private equity interests and cash holdings safely puts the former chartered accountant’s net worth at over a billion dollars. “Whatever is known publicly is underestimated,” says a source close to him.

Jhunjhunwala is the most successful investor in India. His career as a professional trader-investor began 24 years ago with Rs 5,000. The son of an income tax officer, the companies Jhunjhunwala has put money into have made him one of the country’s biggest self-made billionaires. “He has brought a lot of positivity to stock trading,” says Kalpraj Dharamsi, a longtime friend and fellow trader. “Before him, the markets were known for unsavoury characters who ended up in jail. He changed that by being transparent.”

The anonymous author of the blog, The Secret Diary of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, ascribes this quote to its muse: ‘The Market is my Altar—I am its god’. Jhunjhunwala saw the potential of stock trading far before day trading, CNBC, and financial punditry became a way of life. The simplicity with which he’s been able to reap riches from it has made him a demigod among traders, who call him Rocky and ‘big bull’, analyse his stock picks and dissect its logic, hoping to duplicate his successful gambles. His basic principle is long-term focus on sectors that feed India’s middle-class expansion and consumption, like construction, pharma, and engineering. A sample of his success: Jhunjhunwala first bought 664,250 shares in Titan between March and June 2002 when the share price hovered around Rs 50; at the time of writing this piece, the stock was trading at Rs 1,671 per share. Jhunjhunwala’s investment in the company is now worth over Rs 500 crore. (A diversionary factoid: Jhunjhunwala consistently wears Titan watches, even posing with his Titan Nebula gold-plated watch for a news story on the product. He has one Patek Philippe, but doesn’t wear it much because “it’s not as good as Titan”.)

If ever there was an aspect of his life where the odds went against him, it was in one part of his personal life. “Not having children was a bugbear for him for a long time,” says Dharamsi. The first miracle happened in 2004, and then in 2009, even as his portfolio took a beating, his twin boys were born. The couple that had everything but ‘that’ now has ‘that’ too. And it defines almost every aspect of their life.

Probably because the children took their time coming, Missus and Mister Jhunjhunwala are best friends. Even a perfunctory Google search will tell you that his proprietary trading firm RaRe Enterprises is named after the couple: ‘Ra’ for Rakesh, ‘Re’ for Rekha, who is universally touted as his lucky charm.

They’re seemingly completely different yet alike in many ways. She’s low-key and nurturing, while he’s loud, jocular even, but so self-assured he could get into an argument to prove his point. But the determination with which he built his company meets its match in the focus she applies to her personal life. She’s involved in every aspect of her children’s lives, accompanies her husband to every party, and within nine months of her last delivery, Rekha lost the excess weight by walking seven kilometres a day. The couple come from large Mumbai-based families; he is the youngest of four children, she, the second of six. He’s a confirmed South Bombay boy, who teases her about her suburban roots: “She’s from andhera,” he says, referring to Andheri.

I first met the couple in 2004, a few months after Nishtha was born. Rekha was tired out but jubilant for the child born after six cycles of IVF and a complicated pregnancy. Both were vocal about the emotional pain of 17 childless years, and also about how important it was for couples with fertility problems to talk about it. The extremely sociable couple had the support of a gang of friends and family. “I have family that went through IVF and I knew how difficult it was,” says Ruchi Damani, a family friend of over 15 years. “I was amazed by how hard she tried.” In fact, Rekha felt the gap in their lives more acutely than Rakesh. With Jhunjhunwala more than effectively carrying out his role as breadwinner, Rekha was the one without purpose. She did what she had to for her first baby, and once she decided it was time for her daughter to have a sibling, Rekha went through three cycles of IVF again before the twins were conceived. She was 45 years old.

Of all the changes, seen and unseen, their kids have brought upon this couple, perhaps the biggest is the Jhunjhunwalas’ address. Till Nishtha was born, the couple didn’t even consider living anywhere but the building his joint family had occupied since 1977. They shared three bedrooms between themselves and his parents. “There was really no space, and we took a decision that we’d have to find something else,” says Rekha. What they found was a 4,500 sq ft duplex in a building called Il Palazzo in South Mumbai’s Malabar Hills. He paid Rs 25.25 crore for it. “Our family is very close, we always live with our parents,” says Jhunjhunwala. “My mother is still the boss of the house, and Rekha allows that.”

There are few buildings in Mumbai that say as much about its residents as Il Palazzo does. The 21-floor 70s high-rise is home to many Mumbai blue-bloods, including Birla clan members, and actor Vinod Khanna. According to the South Bombay real estate grapevine, the building society didn’t make it easy for this new-monied family to buy into the rarefied complex, apparently delaying the paperwork. “It was never about the building,” says Damani. “Before finalising the deal Rakesh called Rekha to ask her if he should do it, she simply said, ‘If you think it’s fine then do it’. It was simply about having a good home, they could have had a bungalow if they wanted.”

The Jhunjhunwalas are unabashedly middle-class, but in a world that’s straight out of a Sooraj Barjatiya movie. The Jhunjhunwalas’ orbit always sparkles with diamonds and platinum, their families are loud but loving, their friendships are thicker than blood, parties are so flamboyant it’s crass; houses are Byzantine, cars big. But at the same time, the family takes maybe one international holiday annually, the last being a vacation in Singapore to celebrate Nishtha’s fifth birthday. The new professionally-decorated family home has just one extravagant art piece: a huge Paresh Maity mixed-media canvas. But it’s so badly displayed behind the living room sofa that it’s clearly unloved. “I don’t understand art, I haven’t studied it, I have no passion for it,” admits Jhunjhunwala.

The couple worry about spoiling their millionaire rug rats, consciously enrolling Nishtha in a nondescript school, and finding solace in the fact that she’s never insisted on going anywhere in her father’s Mercedes Benz S-Class. But it’s unlikely they’d say no if she asked. On more than one occasion, Jhunjhunwala says of his children: “When they smile you forget everything.” When I met the couple in 2004, Jhunjhunwala had already decided how he was going to spoil his firstborn. He’d just bought some land in Lonavala, and showed me a full-scale model of the house he planned to build on it. It was going to be her palace, he said. He’s kept that promise. Their brand new holiday home is almost 18,000 sq ft, with seven bedrooms, a pool, jacuzzi, gym, even a disco. It’s become a favourite getaway for a man with a party animal reputation. “He loves having his friends around,” says Dharamsi. “In a month if Rakesh doesn’t go to a party or throws one himself then there’s something wrong.”

Their biggest bash to date also revolved around their children. Last June, the Jhunjhunwalas organized a party to celebrate the birth of Aryaman and Aryavir. The parents dressed up like an Indian bride-and-groom and hosted every important name in Mumbai’s social diary at the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt. Rekha also received a token of appreciation after the twins’ delivery: an eight-carat diamond ring, adding to her already vast collection of supersize gems. Jhunjhunwala has never celebrated a professional success with as much gusto as his children’s births. In fact RaRe Enterprises has a reputation in the industry as a somewhat secretive organisation.

People who’ve known Jhunjhunwala for some time say he’s mellowed since the kids arrived. He says he still eats too much, smokes too much, and drinks like a fish (his home bar is brilliantly appointed with several bottles of Blue Label Johnnie Walker and Camus to Glenmorangie Madeira Wood Finish single malts). But apparently the trio has managed to distract their father from his once obsessive work schedule. Now his workday begins at noon and ends around nine. Rekha says he feels the need to be around the kids for as long as possible.

But meet Jhunjhunwala during office hours and he can seem downright cold. Some financial journalists complain that he’s rude, and he admits their questions sometimes annoy him. “If I show you my mailbox you’ll see how many questions I get. Most I don’t answer. I have no motive, no customers, no clients, except Mrs Jhunjhunwala, and she’s a captive customer,” he says, laughing. Obviously he can parallel process but you’d think otherwise if you saw the intensity with which the man watches the four desktop trading terminals that face him all day.

During our interview in his office, Jhunjhunwala’s market-meditation was only interrupted by a call he answered on the speakerphone. Someone asked the successful stockbroker: “Hello, is this the Indian Chartered Accountants’ Association?”

Though Jhunjhunwala made his millions from successful long-term investments more than pure trading, many consider him a supermodel among traders. Jhunjhunwala admits he’s made so much money he manages to live entirely on the dividends of his investment. “Of course I would like to earn. But if I don’t, it doesn’t make much of a difference,” he says. As plainspoken as he is, he consciously evades talking about the specifics of any ‘technique’ or offering ‘tips’. His cautionary word of advice: “You can’t make money on borrowed knowledge. People ask me for tips, I tell them it’s hazardous for health.”

But, on a Sunday morning, as we sat in his recce room, watching his daughter play, Jhunjhunwala gave me a tip: “Do you have kids?” he asked. To my answer, he said simply, “You’re missing something in life.”