Flame: The Inspiring Life of My Mother Shahnaz Husain by Nelofar Currimbhoy, Hachette, 2012, Rs 295, pp. 236.
Engaged at 14, married at 16, mother to a little girl at 17, Shahnaz Husain’s life is an inspiration to those who passionately want to turn adversity into success. Losing has never been a choice for her nor has being anything less than successful; hitting upon the winning formula of age-old home-grown beauty cures has been a consuming passion for over four decades. The story of her life, told by her daughter Nelofar Currimbhoy, is as riveting as it is remarkable. Despite highs and lows, losses and gains, personal tragedies and professional triumphs, Husain’s life and career reveal her boundless courage and conviction and her relentless determination to face any challenge that comes her way. Her persona – always larger-than-life, as is amply reflected in her huge kohl-rimmed eyes, chunky jewellery, outsize sunglasses and crimson mane – is as compelling as the story of her life, making her products ‘Shahnaz Herbals’ indelibly associated in the mind of every user with their creator.
Currimbhoy, showing great promise in her first outing as a writer, reveals the innate qualities of a born story-teller. Having had a ringside view to her mother’s life and career, she studs her narrative with not only the enthusiasm of one who has watched this incredible story unfold but also the warmth of one who has loved unconditionally. The Shahnaz Husain that emerges from these pages is intelligent, driven, astute yet child-like, dreamy, glamorous, and yes, larger than life. Currimbhoy paints an intimate portrait of a woman who launched her multi-million dollar empire in a glazed verandah in a rented house in the summer of 1970. With little more than a frugal budget and endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm (not to mention a hugely supportive husband) Husain built, literally brick by brick (or more appropriately jar by jar and potion by potion) a range of treatment-based products that would soon take the world by storm. Keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with unquestioning love, she tells her mother’s story with panache and perception. Likening her mother (‘Mum’ as Currimbhoy calls her) to a flame, a flame that could not be doused by all of life’s storms, she refers to her mother as an ‘intensely free spirit’: ‘Every time a wave splashed on her, she rose again with an irrepressible – the energy of life and passion. How else would you explain the path she steered her life through?’
In a series of Chapters entitled ‘How the West was Won’, ‘When east Met west’, and ‘When the Future Came, She was Already There’, Currimbhoy gives a sampling of Husain’s astute business sense. Asked how her company would face up to the innumerable foreign brands flooding market, she narrates how her mother answered with complete nonchalance: ‘I don’t have to face them. They are coming to my country; they will have to face me.’ Speaking at Harvard, after attending President Obama’s summit of world entrepreneurs and taking in a short course on business management, Husain rued her lack of formal education (she dropped out of School at 16) but also asserted:
‘Would I have done it any better if I had come to Harvard at 16? I am not sure if I would have but I am sure of one thing – I would not have wished my career to be any different. Strangely, I have found that almost everything that was taught to me in my course, I have already applied over the years.’
A quintessential and intuitive entrepreneur, Husain and the Shahnaz Herbals model has been studied by marketing gurus the world over. What made a flourishing franchise of salons dispensing the signature Shahnaz Herbal products turn to building a distribution network from scratch? Primarily, the thriving grey market of fake Shahnaz products coupled with an overwhelming demand that the franchises could not meet. Commenting on this fortuitous serendipity Currimbhoy writes: ‘Shahnaz Herbals was an interesting example of a company that first created a market quite incidentally by remaining exclusive and then supplied an already existing demand.’