On the evening of October 31, 2020, a tense scene played out in the terrace of Kakira Guest House at the upscale staff quarters of Kakira Sugar Limited.
A middle-aged Asian woman was engaged in a discourse with two men. It was not easy to pick out much of the conversation from eavesdropping but the timing was telling.
The woman asked for two things; secrecy so that their meeting and its detail would not be reported, and nothing but the truth. The men swore their loyalty to her. They revealed how they had been asked to testify that they had seen this same woman assault her sister-in-law and that they had been asked to spy on her for months on end.
Nimisha Madhvani had left home to meet the menservants from her family bungalow after an apparent near physical exchange with her elder brother Nitin Madhvani, who accused her of assaulting his wife.
By late March, Meenaben (mother) and Nimisha (daughter) had become regular diners at the guest house.
Meenaben, frail and supported by her servants, would be in the company of her daughter, who had been recalled from her ambassadorial duties over a Covid-19 funding scandal.
The family feud, sources say, was a culmination of a bitter feud between the son and daughter of Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani, must have been one the incidents their mother, Meenaben regretted living long enough to witness.
The brother-sister feud that drew in their mother would be widely covered in the media, peeling the veil from the highly secretive life of the Madhvani family that had last been in the public milieu in 1980s.
Meenaben,92, popularly known as Namwandu (widow) in Kakira, passed on in the wee hours of yesterday while being taken to hospital with suspected breathing complications.
Behind the facade of the heavily canopied expansive Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani (JMM)’s bungalow on a hill in Kakira concealed what would be deep creases of pain, rejection, betrayal and dishonour of a woman whose only crime was falling in love and marrying in a family so many miles richer than her background.
The JMM bungalow facade was aptly described by the Los Angeles Times in 1989 as “a riot of swirling colours, exquisite mosaics, great fountains and towering glass, embraced all its family like some magnificently dolled-up aunt.”
Born on June 27, 1929, in Tanga, Tanzania, Meena Chauhan’s union with Jayant was bridged with thorns. The young lovers had to walk on thorns in 1945 when Jayant’s father Muljibhai rejected Meenaben.
The founder of the Madhvani Group empire was only building Kakira, the heartbeat of what would turn into generational wealth and could not fathom how his eldest son would suggest a marital union with the Chauhan family.
But Jayant refused to lower his head on this. The fresh graduate of Chemistry and Law degrees from India, was in love with the senorita he had met while calling on his sister Ruxmani in Tanga, Tanzania.
In his book, “Tide of Fortune: A family tale,” Manubhai, the second born son in the Madhvani family, detailed the war for Meena’s hand-pitting father and his eldest son, a war that raged on in the family for five years.
“Coming as she did from another caste, it was very difficult for Muljibhai to accept his eldest son’s choice of bride,” Manubhai, who died in 2011, wrote.
Jayant left in protest, cutting off all communication from his family. By the third month, his father was restless and willing to enter a truce.
Manubhai recalled: “He gave his blessing, albeit with an ominous warning: ‘But remember this. One person can ruin a whole family. It is you who will regret this, not me. You think I’m standing in your way, but I’m not going to suffer. You’re going to suffer.’”
If falling in love with a wealthy Gujarat was a crime, then Meena had committed a grave one.
The lovebirds sealed their union in Bombay, India, in 1950, with only Meena’s brother Shivji Suchdev present.
Muljibhai and his wife Parvatiben Kotecha (she was Jayant’s stepmother who joined the family after the death of the patriarch’s first wife and Jayant’s mother Gangaben in 1924) and other family members all snubbed the wedding.
The walk on the bridge of thorns en route to their marriage had left the young lovers with bloodsoaked footprints that would mark everyone of Meena’s footsteps even after she took on the suffix ‘ben’ after the passing on of Muljibhai and Parvatiben years later.
The Gujarati suffix was her acceptance into the family. She could now command the respect deserved of the wife of the eldest son who, with their parents dead, also acted as her younger in-laws’ mother.
However, beneath that respect lay more darker subplots of family intrigue — Meenaben’s second walk on thorns.
Holding Jayant’s thorny wreath
Jayantbhai suffered a fatal heart attack on July 25, 1971 while on a business family pilgrimage trip to India. He left behind three children; Nitin, 20, Nimisha,16, and Amit aged 12. But there was also his namwandu Meenaben carrying and protecting Jayant’s thorny wreath.
“….Their world was turned upside down. Just a few weeks before, they had been one big happy family planning a pilgrimage in northern India,” Manubhai wrote.
“Now, suddenly, their most beloved one, their rock, had been snatched from them before he was even 50.”
In a highly patriarchal family, it did not help matters that the sons were from two separate mothers. With Jayant gone, the other sons from Muljibhai’s second marriage with Parvatiben Kotecha — Manu, Surendra, Pratap and Mayur — naturally wanted to take control of the family business.
The founding father had divided the family business into five equal parts for the five sons. The daughters had no say in the business.
Jayant’s business acumen and vision is one Manubhai spoke fondly of. After their father passed away in 1958 from his home in Kakira, Jayant found himself thrust into managing the family and its businesses. Under his leadership, the company branched into breweries, glass making, textile and cable manufacturing, making a good run.
The thorny wreath that Meenaben had to carry was her husband’s legacy. She worried that the other half-brothers, would take over the family business and sideline Jayant’s heir, Nitin.
But there was a bigger issue to worry about, the Asian expulsion came fast on the throes of mourning. The Madhvanis had to leave. Meenaben refused, determined to protect the legacy of her husband from inside JMM bungalow.
President Amin had his eyes on the bungalow, and rumours that refuse to leave say, the widow in it, too. He turned it into a state lodge after expelling Asians from the country in 1972, with Major Ozi whom he appointed as general manager in 1973,and his captains residing there.
It took a lot of threats by Amin’s henchmen and persuasion by family members for Meenaben to take flight to Kenya where the family has other homes.
She would return almost immediately Amin fled to Libya as if she was commanding a platoon of the Tanzanian forces that helped defeat the former Ugandan leader. Her son, Nitin, was 29 then and she must have wanted him to succeed Jayant.
Yet it is quite admirable that even at the twilight of her time, the namwandu’s most fervent concerns have been the protection of her husband’s legacy. As the family pressures piled with son and daughter in a bitter feud, Meenaben frequently drove to the family mausoleum across the Jinja-Iganga Highway from Kakira to meditate at Jayant’s final resting place.
What was clear is that as long as she lived, she was determined to prop the name and legacy of her husband.
Before Covid-19 struck, this writer had been granted a tour of Kakira estate by Mayur who would do it firsthand. Speaking to Nimisha about this, a suggestion that some infrastructure such as schools, hospital or roads in the vast estate could be named after Meenaben was floated.
In Kakira, only Muljibhai Madhvani Primary School and the main road from the highway have names. Ross Avenue. It was named by the founding father after an Australian general manager. But a children’s hospital in Jinja City is named after the last born, Mukesh, who was born in 1953, and died just seven years later.
“That’s very thoughtful,” admitted Nimisha. “But she will want it in the name of Jayantbhai Muljibhai Madhvani… my mum would prefer her husband the visionary Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani.”
This undying loyalty is one Meenaben had to pass on to her children, or at least her daughter. Even as Nimisha wrote a book about her mother, she revealed the yet-to-be published biography is actually more about her mother’s tribute to Jayant.
“Over lunch and in between breaks, I would corner her and ask her to tell me more stories about her legendary father and grandfather. She spoke fondly of them all, particularly of her father, Jayantbhai, who understandably, her eyes lighting she called the ‘greatest of all,” Dr Martin Mwanje Lwanga, the Dean, Faculty of Business and Administration at Uganda Christian University wrote of his encounter with Nimisha.
This was a daughter speaking in a manner so typical of her mother.
The final walk on thorns
Between 1981 and early 90s, Nitin was widely thought to have inherited the Jayant unit shares of the Madhvani family. Meenaben had returned after the fall of Amin and quickly negotiated with the Obote II government to return the family businesses to Nitin.
However, events in 2020 saw the secretive family thrust on the front pages of the dailies as brother and sister fought for inheritance.
The media stories saw revelations that Meenaben had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and that she had suffered memory loss that Nimisha was accused of exploiting to gain control of the shares.
The feud, coming at a time when Mayur was planning to pass on control of the family businesses to the younger generation, suggested that Nitin and her sons needed this to negotiate for a chance to claim a seat in the Joint Managing Directors’ office in Kakira.
President Museveni also intervened after the feud worsened and llegations that a cook had attempted to poison the old matriarch.
Seeing a frail Meenaben supported for lunches and dinners at the guest house did not surprise many.
In a family of 13, Jayant and Ruxmani were born to Gangaben, who was just 14 when she married Muljibhai. She passed on tragically at Nsambya Hospital in Kampala in 1926.
In 1928, Muljibhai remarried and had another 11 children, including five boys, with Parvatiben Kotecha.
1950, Meenaben and Jayant met in 1945 in Tanga, Tanzania, a love at first sight. They married five years later after overcoming family prejudice over her caste.