When Michael Hiltzik of Los Angeles Times visited JMM (Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani) bungalow in Kakira in April 1989, he described it as “… a riot of swirling colours, exquisite mosaics, great fountains and towering glass, [which] embraced all its family like some magnificently dolled-up aunt.”
Hiltzik was, in a way, off the mark in concluding that the mansion embraced all its family. Of course, there was a time when, with their mothers and father dead, the younger Madhvanis all sought family unity and warmth in the imposing Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani (JMM) bungalow.
Indeed, Manubhai, who passed on in 2011, corroborates this family closeness in his memoir, Tide of Fortune: A Family Tale. Manubhai recollects that his brother Mayur – whenever he was in the country – with sisters Jyotsna and Jayendra – would prefer to live in the splendid new bungalow across the MMM [Manubhai Muljibhai Madhvani] family bungalow.
Those were the days when Jayant, the first born and heir of patriarch Madhvani’s first marriage, together with his wife Meena, would play surrogate parents to his orphaned and younger four step-brothers and five step-sisters.
What Hiltzik did not sense when he was impressed greatly by the bungalow was that behind the splendour was a life of sadness, rejection and deep-seated family feud.
Four months ago, in May, Hamza, a friend, and I walked past this architectural marvel when a sport utility vehicle (SUV) whizzed past.
“That’s Namwandu (widow),” said Hamza as the SUV slowed down and rolled gently onto the private boulevard that connects the six Madhvani bungalows to their airstrip and the Jinja-Iganga Highway.
Meena, now 91, is often called Namwandu in Kakira.
“She must be going to the Pomping, she has been going there a lot lately – to pray at her husband’s burial site,” Hamza remarked.
Pomping, an easier way for locals to say Water Pumping Station, stands on a waterfront of Lake Victoria and holds the Madhvani family crematorium.
Hamza, a manservant at the JMM, intimated that days earlier, Ambassador Nimisha, who is Jayant and Meena’s second born, had to plead for President Museveni’s intervention after a feud with her elder brother Nitin turned ugly.
“A housekeeper loyal to Nitin had blocked Ambassador Nimisha from accessing some rooms and a cook was also accused of attempted poisoning,” Hamza said.
On August 8, Saturday Monitor published detail of the feud, quoting a June 22 letter in which Mr Nitin sought State intervention to defuse tension in his family.
Mr Nitin accused his sister – Ambassador Nimisha – of holding out as a director in the Madhvani Group and abusing her clout to unfairly gain control of the family’s assets.
The Madhvani Group is divided equally among the five sons – Jayant, Manu, Pratap, Surendra and Mayur. The sixth son and last born, Mukesh, who died a toddler in 1960, is not included in the ownership, just as the seven sisters were excluded – for cultural reasons.
However, unlike the four other sons who were born to Muljibhai and Parvatiben Kotecha, Mr Nitin as a step nephew and Ambassador Nimisha as step niece, are their own keepers, their father having been born of Muljibhai’s first marriage to Gangaba Unadkut, who died at just 20.
“She [Ambassador Nimisha] has taken advantage of her brother Amit’s mental limitations and her [mother] Meena’s major cognitive impairments to control their affairs and property,” the letter by Mr Nitin read in part.
With that letter, the illustrious and industrious history of the Madhvani Group had found its way into the media for only the third time.
For years, many had only heard in passing of Amit’s limited mental abilities, but now it was public knowledge, complete with medical reports about Ms Meena’s ailments, mostly occasioned by old age.
The Madhvanis are as secretive as a people weaned on Omerta, the Sicilian code of silence.
The only other two times the family washed its linen in the media were in 1980, when Manubhai sued his stepbrother’s wife Meena and, interestingly, his step nephew Nitin, over ownership of Kakira Sugar Ltd that had just been returned to them by the Milton Obote II government.
Kenya’s Sunday Standard newspaper of April 6, 1980, quoted Manubhai as saying he had been advised that Mr Nitin acted in breach of an undertaking signed by all members of the family in 1978.
“We should all act together on matters relating to our interests… It’s a very sad business. We’ve had our quarrels like many family but nothing like this. It is the first time that one of the families has sued another.”
Nine years later, it was Meena in the media and venting her frustrations with her brothers-in-law.
“This is a total Mafia-type situation,” she told LA Times. “After my husband’s death in 1971, Manubhai [brother –in-law] couldn’t build up an atmosphere of trust within the family.”
Meena did not sue then. But will Mr Nitin stop at that?
From the way his arsenal has been fired, a second intra-family suit seems to be on the steps of the courtroom.
Mr Nitin’s letters and the recent highly publicised alleged embezzlement of Covid-19 funds involving his own sister point to the crossing of the Rubicon in the formerly close family relations.
Ambassador Nimisha declined to comment on the controversies, but sources at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say the video was most likely leaked out from one of the imposing JMM bungalows.
Ambassador Nimisha has been in Kakira with her mother since the Covid-19 locked down the global economy and is understood to have engaged in the controversial Zoom meeting from home.
“Mr Nitin is after his own mother, but he’s using a veiled attack on his sister, that’s why he exposed the mother’s conditions so that the public believes she is in no condition to make decisions,” a staff at Kakira Sugar Ltd said.
Jayant was fated. In a family of 13, he and Ruxmani were born to Gangaben, who was just 14 when she married Muljibhai Madhvani.
She passed on tragically at Nsambya Hospital in Kampala in 1926.
In 1928, Muljibhai remarried and had another 11 children with Parvatiben Kotecha.
For a family empire such as the Madhvani Group, Jayant was fated to be on the same scope as his brothers in case of a family feud. But he was as shrewd as their father, going by Manubhai’s glowing tribute. And having passed on at just 49 in 1971, he avoided seeing his half-brothers grow old enough to clamour for the family fortunes.
However, the one fate he could not avoid was in his marriage.
In 1945, Jayant returned to Uganda after completing his Chemistry and Law degrees in India. He immediately set out to call on his sister Ruxmani in Tanga, Tanzania. It was here that he met Meena. The two struck the love notes like they had heard Udit Narayan’s ballads in their future.
“Coming as she did from another caste, it was very difficult for Muljibhai to accept his eldest son’s choice of bride,” Manubhai wrote in his memoir.
“Arguments raged on about this issue for the next five years… I supported him against our father in this matter. It was the one and only time that I came into direct conflict with Muljibhai, who expressed his anger by publicly slapping me in the face for challenging his opinion,” he adds.
Jayant left home in protest. He cut off all communication for three months.
“My father was very worried. After a while, news came that Jayant was somewhere in Burma,” Manubhai wrote.
Muljibhai was losing this one battle to his son. Either he accepted the marriage or risked losing the son he cherished.
He chose his son.
“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.’”
Jayant and Meena’s marriage in Bombay, India, in 1950 was snubbed by the family.
Only his brother-in-law Shivji Suchdev attended the wedding.
At the time, the children were all that – children. Only Manubhai, 20, and Nirmala, two years his junior, were old enough to attend.
But his parents...
The snub pointed to what was to come. It is understood the family has never warmed up to Meena since then. And, like a fighter, Meena has fought back in her own way.
Manubhai’s first wife Jyoti Pajwani, who arrived in the family two years after Meena, particularly served a freezing cold shoulder to Ms Meena.
Before constructing his JMM bungalow, Jayant and Meena lived in an annex of the main family bungalow.
They shared a meal as one family.
“This arrangement would continue for some years but I cannot say it was ideal. The chemistry between Meena and Jyoti was not good,” Manubhai reminisced.
After their mother’s and father’s deaths, Manubhai again recalled the bad relationship between the two women. “The family was beginning to settle down and I worked well with Jayant but the relationship between our wives remained difficult. To keep the harmony and the peace, I felt Jyoti would be more comfortable if she would spend more time in London,” Manubhai reminisced.
During the expulsion of Asians, Meena was the last of the Madhvanis to leave the country. She had vowed to die in Kakira afraid they would ever return after the expulsion. It took a lot of convincing for her to accept to cross the border into Kenya.
Meena was first to return with her family after Amin’s fall and negotiated with the Obote II government to return the Madhvani assets to Mr Nitin, her son, whom she passed as the legitimate heir to the family.
But led by Manubhai, the other family members fought for the soul of Kakira.
Meena settled the dispute with an arrangement under which Manubhai and Mayur took over Kakira.
In return, she and son Mr Nitin were to manage the rest of the properties.
Meena’s fight has always been to protect what she believes belonged to her husband. These had to go to her children.
But the failures in managing the other assets handed to her side of the family – overseen by her son Nitin – was laid on her laps.
“She was in the forefront and these companies were not running,” Manubhai’s son Kamlesh said.
In 1989, Meena was still strong. In conceding Kakira to her in-laws, she had bent over backward to give them what they wanted.
But not in her twilight and incapable of bending backwards, ironically, while facing assault from within her own family.