EASTERN EYE was considering doing an interview with the Indian-origin entrepreneur Nirmal Sethia when he hit the national headlines last Monday (25) for quite an unexpected reason – there was panic in north London when a “big cat” was spotted in the garden of his spacious home in Winnington Road on the Highgate-Hampstead borders.
The area is where the seriously rich from all over the world – but especially wealthy British Asians – have their homes.
The next road along is The Bishops Avenue, dubbed “Millionaires’ Row”. Lakshmi Mittal bought a mansion, The Summer Palace, there when the steel tycoon first arrived in London from Indonesia in 1995.
Sethia thought the animal, which stayed in his garden for about four hours, was either a cheetah or a possibly a leopard. But after studying snatched pictures and footage, others were of the opinion that the creature was more likely to be a Savannah cat or a more ferocious Serval.
One of Sethia’s panic-stricken neighbours was terrified that her young child was in danger and called the police, who arrived in strength at the Indian businessman’s residence at about 9.30pm.
Sethia takes up the story: “There were 20-25 policemen. They had guns, they had everything. Night came and they had torches.”
Far from being terrified, Sethia, a devotee of the Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo, adopts a philosophical approach: “I’m a very fortunate human being. Everybody is calling me, saying, ‘You must have been scared, petrified.’
“Why of all the houses in Hampstead Garden suburb and in The Bishops Avenue, it chose this house, I have no answer,” he speculates. “He did not even spoil a leaf in my garden.
“Does that tell you something? He felt safe or the gods sent him to convey something to me. I am the chosen child. It is something between the divine and me.”
Sethia is best known as the owner of Newby Tea, which he says is the world’s finest. But he has many other interests.
“We are involved in security printing, sugar refining, banking – I am on the board of a bank in Dubai. We are involved in small power generation, in real estate, but 50 per cent of my time goes on tea because I love my tea,” he once confided to Eastern Eye.
He also has a home in Dubai but because of the lockdown, this is the longest period he has spent in London at one stretch.
Sethia, who was born in Calcutta on November 8, 1941, took over part of the family empire when his father, Sohan Lalji Sethia, died in 1967. On February 18, 1969, he married Chitra Devi, whose interests included the study of Sanskrit and of the Vedas and the Upanishads. He was deeply affected by Chitra’s death in London on November 30, 2010.
Since her passing, he has channelled much of his energy into the work of the N Sethia Foundation, his British-registered charity which he runs with his daughter and fellow trustee, Richa Sethia.
In his wife’s name, the foundation has put millions into Chitra Sethia Centre for Robotics and Minimal Access Surgery at the University College Hospital; the Chitra Nirmal Sethia Technology and Training Hub at Imperial College London (this was opened by Prince Charles); and the Chitra Sethia Autism Centre based at the Fulbourn Hospital site, part of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (which was opened by Sophie, Countess of Wessex).
“At the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, the Chitra Nirmal Sethia immunology and Transplant Centre occupies 20,000 sq ft,” he goes on.
Sethia has gathered 1,700 tea pots, some very rare, and called it “the Chitra Collection”. Said to be worth £400 million, this, too, is now owned by the foundation. Some pieces were recently borrowed by the Palace of Versailles for display.
He has also funded a gallery for ancient casts at the Victoria & Albert Album Museum, which thanked Sethia. “In acknowledgement of the support of the N Sethia Foundation, the former Central Gallery has been renamed the Chitra Nirmal Sethia Gallery and features both exhibits and contextual material detailing the production methods of the casts.”
Sethia tells Eastern Eye the name change is “in perpetuity, not just for 25-30 years”.
While in lockdown, he says he has been trying to do his bit for healthcare workers.
“We have given away lots of tea, because our tea is the best in the world,” he asserts. “It is the most medicinal tea. It has anti-oxidant values. It has moderate quantities of fluoride, iron and tannins. It helps you to build up immunity.”
He explains that the Newby Tea Company is owned by the N Sethia Foundation. “So we decided to give it away globally. We gave it to America. Lots of tea we gave to the Nightingale Hospital. We have given in Switzerland to private medical clinics. We have done it in Dubai and many other countries. Instead of trying to sell the tea and take advantage of pricing, we decided to distribute them to hospitals.”
The Newby Tea packing plant in Kolkata was damaged by the recent cyclone Amphan, which hit the Indian state of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh.
Again, he tries to see his loss in perspective: “We have the most unique facility in the world, which preserves the tea. Our tea comes from the second flush. The plant has perpetual air conditioning, dehumidification and air purification system. In fact, I believe that the air quality in our factory and where we store tea is purer than the air quality of an ICU [intensive care unit].
“The factory got badly damaged and is closed now but we are trying to repair it. The whole of Bengal was devastated. Should I feel sorry for my little factory?”
Incidentally, as Eastern Eye went to press on Tuesday (2), the big cat seen in Sethia’s garden had still not been caught.