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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May 2005, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
India's enigmatic tycoon goes undercover

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC India correspondent

Subrata Roy. Photo - Sahara India website
Subrata Roy is one of India's richest and most enigmatic businessmen

Indians are so obsessed with cricket, films and politics that there is usually little room for anything else to occupy the centre space so far as gossip and speculation is concerned.

But the intrigue surrounding Subrata Roy - one of the country's most flamboyant and enigmatic tycoons - must be an exception to that rule.

Subrata Roy is often referred to as India's Howard Hughes.

Like the famous American entrepreneur - whose legend was recreated in a recent Hollywood blockbuster - Mr Roy has also suddenly disappeared.

Health gossip

His vanishing has sparked off wild rumours in India's power and party circuit about his health.

The head of the $10bn Sahara group has interests in banking, aviation, media and housing.

In recent weeks nobody has seen the Sahara chief other than his immediate family and a few trusted aides.

Sahara workforce. Photo - Sahara India website
Sahara is one of India's largest employers

A letter sent last week by Mr Roy to his business associates and nearly 900,000 employees - Sahara is India's biggest private sector employer - has only fuelled more gossip about his health.

It is not difficult to understand why there is so much speculation. Seldom away from the media glare, Mr Roy has a larger than life image, a colourful lifestyle and legendary political connections.

When his two sons got married last year, the festivities lasted nearly a fortnight. It was billed as the Indian marriage of the century, and it lived up to its hype.

'Cult company'

Critics say that Mr Roy runs his company like a cult, referring to himself as the "chief managing worker" and guardian of the Sahara family.

He has a fleet of private jets and helicopters and one of his mansions is modelled on the White House.

Another residence - located in a private city he has built at the cost of tens of millions of dollars - is a replica of Buckingham Palace.

My biggest achievement of life - I'm very proud to be the Guardian of The World's Largest Family
Subrata Roy

All kinds of theories are doing the rounds. One says that an entire floor of a super deluxe hotel was recently bought by Sahara in Mumbai (Bombay) and converted into a make shift hospital. Doctors were flown in from the US and Europe to attend to the ailing Sahara chief.

Another says that Mr Roy has been felled as much by financial problems confronting his multi-billion dollar empire.

Taking the rumours one stage further, someone claiming to be a friend of Mr Roy even filed a petition earlier this week in an Indian court saying the Sahara chief was being held hostage by his wife and should be freed.

'No illness'

"Complete nonsense," is how OP Srivastava, "deputy managing worker" and the number two in Sahara describes all the hullabaloo surrounding the issue of his boss's health.

"There is nothing grave about the situation. "Mr Roy is recovering well," he told me on the telephone from Lucknow, the northern Indian city which is the corporate headquarters of the Sahara group.

He then repeated most of what Mr Roy communicated in his letter to his employees last week. That says that he is not suffering from any life threatening illness and has been advised to rest by the doctors.

Menu pictures for the wedding of two of Mr Roy's sons last year
No expense was spared for the weddings of Mr Roy's sons

In the letter, Mr Roy dwelt upon his rags to riches story and wrote about how he is now paying a heavy price for the unending and irregular hours of work he put in to achieve success.

He also talks about how much stress and tension he suffered - regularly missing out on sleep - as he moved up the corporate ladder.

According to Mr Srivastava, the blood pressure of the Sahara boss has fluctuated frequently, and because it was neglected for so long it took some time to get it stable.

He said the Sahara chief was now leading a much more disciplined and orderly life - even doing yoga and regular exercises - which should cure him soon.

He also dismissed rumours about the company facing any cash crunch. According to him, the finances of Sahara were in good shape and they have made above market average profits on their investments in the last few months.

"Nobody gets admitted to a hospital for blood pressure problems. And there are no foreign doctors treating him," Mr Srivastava said.

It may be the first time a top ranking Sahara official has gone on record over Mr Roy's illness.

But it is unlikely to put a stop to incessant rumours which will not die down until the mercurial Mr Roy makes a public appearance himself.

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