Anu Aga: A life shaped by tragedy, and the courage to face it

1Anu has the rare capacity to heal grief. She is always ready to talk people through their traumas. What I most admire about Anu is her courage and meticulousness. Under Anu’s leadership, Thermax grew in size and profits. After she handed over the reins to her daughter Meher, Anu decided to help the underprivileged. She could have written out many cheques but chose the harder route.
– Gita Piramal

When I first met Anu Aga at Thermax India’s corporate office in Pune, I distinctly remember being overawed by her serenity and positivity. To merely say she has had a difficult life would be committing grave injustice to this woman—someone whose resilience has been put to test repeatedly, in tragic, heartbreaking ways. Over time, this patrician lady with close-cropped silver hair has proven to the world how true a fighter she is… a paradigm of will and strength.

Death is a dismal business; and grief, an intensely personal one. To talk about either with one of India’s most influential corporate leaders is not common, I thought to myself, as I made my way to the Thermax office on a balmy day… but then, nothing about Arnavaz ‘Anu’ Aga is.

A trained social worker who had chosen the simple joys of marriage and motherhood in her early years, Anu’s life turned around for her in ways she had never imagined. With the sudden death of her husband—CEO of Thermax then—Anu suddenly found herself at the helm of the company, by now ailing and hurtling towards a downward spiral.

Remarkable as it sounds today, Anu orchestrated one of the greatest revival stories corporate India had witnessed. But even while she was picking up the pieces, fate continued to strike one crippling blow after another. And she fought them all with an indomitability most of us can hardly begin to fathom.

Coming from an upper middle-class Parsi family, she shined consistently through her school and college years. Through the Social Service League of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, she volunteered her time and energy to the underprivileged. Anu’s close friend, Kiran Datar, says that Anu was always interested in a world beyond her immediate family: “… a vibrant young girl… who connected easily with people.”

The Early Years And The Early Signs
After graduating, Anu enrolled at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to study medical and psychiatric social work. “Though my degrees themselves did not prepare me for life’s difficulties, the experience and the people I met did have an influence on me. I think they all made me who I am,”she says.

When Anu met the young, suave Cambridge-educated entrepreneur, Rohinton Aga, she lost her heart to him right away. Rohinton worked at Wanson India with Anu’s father. The young couple married in 1965. Under Rohinton’s dynamic leadership, the company—which was renamed Thermax in 1980—grew into a respected engineering firm with interests in energy and environment.

A few years after their first child, Meher, was born, the couple lost their second daughter to an undetected ailment. Resilient, Anu refused to be in mourning and did away with rituals. When their son Kurush was born, in 1972, he was detected with a hole in his heart.

But nothing had prepared her for what came next.

In 1982, out of the blue, Rohinton had a massive heart attack, and while undergoing bypass surgery, suffered a paralytic stroke. Rohinton’s recovery took two years and, aside from tending to him, Anu joined the human resources team at Thermax.

Recovering from his two-year ordeal, fate seemed to have relented, as Rohinton took over the reins of Thermax again, sending its fortunes soaring. By the time Thermax went public in 1995, Anu was heading HR.

It was to be a special reunion. Anu was returning from the UK after helping Meher deliver her first child and Rohinton was driving from Pune to Mumbai to receive her. But on the way, he suffered his second, this time fatal, heart attack.

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