With love and business, from an Indian in Portugal

July 17th, 2008 - 12:11 pm ICT by IANS  

By Devirupa Mitra
New Delhi, July 17 (IANS) As chairman of a Portuguese bank that has been raising finances for Indian companies, Lisbon-based Abdool Magid Abdool Karim Vakil combines love for the land of his ancestors with perfect business sense. In many ways, the journey that started with Vakil’s father migrating from a village in Gujarat to the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique in the late 19th century has come full circle.

“We are now probably the only Portuguese bank that raises finances for Indian companies…most of them in the IT sector,” said Vakil, 68, who was here last week as part of a delegation accompanying the Portuguese foreign minister.

He has served in the Portuguese finance ministry, Bank of Portugal, Manufactures Hanover and Banco Nacional Ultramarino. Vakil, who says he was the first Indian Muslim migrant in Portugal, was last year awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Indian president.

Sitting in the sybaritic environs of Taj Mahal Hotel, surrounded by the sound of cutlery and conversation, Vakil told IANS the story of his life’s journey from Mozambique to the boardrooms of top Portuguese public sector companies.

It all started in the 1890s when his father joined his elder brother to travel from Gujarat to Mozambique.

“I am not sure why they went there. Maybe because Diu (a Portuguese colony) was close (to Gujarat) and somebody told them they could get a good living in Africa,” he mused.

The Vakil brothers prospered, moving from a small shop on the outskirts of the capital city, Lorenco Marques, (renamed Maputo) to a bigger one in the city centre and then constructing one of the first high rise buildings with a lift in 1940.

Then in 1945, his father became concerned that his three sons spoke only Portuguese. “So he took us back to India, to our house in Vanthali. It was a grand journey in a motorcar and with a generator,” he said.

Vakil was enrolled at the local school where he learned Gujarati, Hindi and Arabic. But his stay was interrupted within two years, when in September 1947 the Nawab of Junagadh declared his state to be part of Pakistan. (Junagadh indeed remains part of Gujarat in India.)

“Suddenly, things started happening. That balance that existed before went unbalanced,” he said, referring to simmering communal tensions in Gujarat.

The family decided to leave Gujarat - “we just left in a hurry”, travelled in a train to Bombay and then flew to Karachi. “We stayed for a year in Karachi, so it was interesting to see both sides of the border.”

The family returned to Mozambique, restarting their old routine and business, before life was disrupted again when his father died in 1953.

It took Vakil 60 years to return to Vanthali, when he brought his daughter and son to his ancestral village last year.

“Our house was still standing when I took my daughter and son to visit Vanthali last year. In fact, my daughter notices that the building still had my father’s name - A.Y. Vakil. The present owners were very nice, told us to ‘ayo, baso’. I even met a schoolmate during the visit.”

In Mozambique, life went on.

“For a business family, my mother, like my father, stressed a lot on education. So in 1956, I went to Portugal for higher studies as a 17-year-old, even though my mother was really worried about me living alone,” he said, adding that the two main qualms were about his food habits and the possibility of his taking up with a woman there.

The prophecy was partially fulfilled when he married a Portuguese college mate in 1961. He brought his mother to Portugal and set up the first Indian Muslim household.

After getting a degree in finance from the technical university in 1964, he worked as a lecturer for three years and then plunged into the corporate world.

In 1988, he co-founded a private investment bank, Banco Efisa, which was eventually taken over by Banco Portugues de Negocious in 2001, but Vakil remained the chairman.

His connection with India was renewed when he was persuaded by the Indian ambassador to take part in the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2003. Since then, Vakil, who also heads Portugal’s Islamic community, has not missed a single pravasi gathering, except when he fell ill.

“I was very happy to become more and more conscious of my roots, that we are all originally from here… I have been saying to my friends. Go there (PBD) and you should meet each other,” said a visibly enthused Vakil.

Since then he has combined his emotional interest in India with sound business sense.

Banco Efisa floated an India-specific private equity fund along with the Bahrain-based Taib Bank, called The Leverage India Fund (LIF), which raised over $154 million.

Vakil has now found a new passion - leveraging Portugal’s links with other countries for India. “I tried a merger between a firm here and in Brazil. It was in the metallic industry, but it did not work out.”

Now he is trying for his pet project of bringing Portugal on the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) platform.

“I had been very much interested in the concept of IBSA. In fact, I had even suggested the IBSA plus P idea, as I believe that we in Portugal have a role to play. To this, we can also add Portuguese-speaking Africa”.

“I never give up, I am rather stubborn,” he said.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at devirupa.m@ians.in)

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