Dhirubhai Ambani who came to Mumbai fifty years ago as an unlettered villager looking for a job and is now the city's uncrowned king as also the country's wealthiest businessman, suffered a stroke early last week and has been in coma ever since. Doctors say that this is his third stroke but he will pull through this time too, though he will be literally fighting for his life.

When I flew down to Mumbai to visit his family, I found the hospital ringed by thousands of his admirers, many of whom are devoted shareholders of his company, Reliance Industries. They have been with him through thick and thin all these years and have profited enormously from their stakes.

Dhirubhai raised billions - around Rs75 billion, according to one estimate - through his shareholders and through bonds. They now number over three million, largest in this part of the world, and remain his faithful partners in what has become the biggest business group in India.

Reliance shares have dipped by 30 points in the last three days. The Bombay sensex has also tumbled but it has recovered since. The impact is more psychological, as the market knows that the Reliance business is is in good hands of his two sons, Mukesh and Anil, who are now in complete control of the group's affairs.

The group consists of Reliance Industries, which is engaged in petrochemicals production and marketing, and Reliance Petroleum, which is in oil refining and marketing business.

The two companies, which are to be merged shortly, had a combined turnover of Rs640 billion last year. Ten years ago, the turnover was Rs30 billion. When Dhirubhai went public in 1977, his turnover was a mere Rs1 billion.

Ambani started his career as a yarn merchant, operating out of a small room near Mumbai's textile market, which he shared with another partner. From selling yarn he went on to set up a small spinning and weaving mill in Gujarat, to be followed by a petrochemicals plant near Bombay. It was when he went into petrochemicals that the company took a big jump.

From petrochemicals the next logical step was an oil refinery, the biggest in India and possibly in Asia, with a capacity of 27 million tonnes a year. The capacity is to be expanded to 30 million tonnes for which the company will be raising half a billion dollars next month.

Dhirubhai has always thought big, which is what took him from a small cubbyhole of an office in Mumbai to India's biggest business empire in 40 years flat.

The group is now diversifying into power generation, telecom and oil exploration, all at the same time. Money doesn't seem to be a problem as the group has already lined up over Rs250 billion for the next phase.

In ten years time, Reliance will be looking at a turnover of Rs200 billion or $40 billion at today's prices, when it will be among the top five business groups in Asia.

How did he do it? Hard work, vision and, of course, luck, but mainly vision. Dhirubhai always thought big. When his turnover was no more than a 10 billion, he was planning to overtake Tata Steel, then India's biggest company.

By 1995, he had overtaken the entire Tata group. When I saw him last a few months ago, he was still aiming high and drawing up plans to catch up with the biggest company in Asia.

I have known Dhirubhai for 20 years and he still remains the same modest man he used to be. From a small one-room tenement where he first lived with his family forty years ago, he now occupies a 13-storey mansion in south Mumbai, but he does not put on airs and rarely talks about money.

He now talks about providing every village in India with drinking water and electricity, and of course good roads. A country like India should not be so poor, he says, but, unlike others, who also say the same thing, he really means it !

Jay Dubashi is a noted Indian columnist. Here he does a weekly round-up of the Indian economic scenario.