Book Excerpts

JRD’s first proposal at work: a postal air service

Coomi Kapoor | Updated on October 09, 2021

Two planes, three pilots and three mechanics was what it took to start Tata Airlines.

About the Book

The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis

Coomi Kapoor

Westland Non Fiction

320 pages; Rs 256 (Hardcover)

JRD, the son of RD and Sooni Tata, had a nomadic, itinerant childhood. He was schooled along with his four siblings, Sylla, Dorab, Rodabeh and Jimmy in both France and India, and for a short time, even in Japan. French was the language spoken at home, and with which they were most comfortable. RD’s work required that he remain in Bombay but Sooni, soon after her controversial navjote, found the climate unsuitable and spent most of her time in France with her children.

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One of the most memorable moments of JRD’s life was when, as a fifteen-year-old, he was given a joyride in a neighbour’s plane in the beach resort of Hardelot on the Channel coast, where his parents had a summer home. The neighbour was Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly a plane across the Channel in 1909. JRD was bitten by the flying bug. He became the first Indian to get a pilot’s licence and his fascination with planes shaped his life. One of the many legends about his piloting exploits was that he participated in the Aga Khan contest, which offered a prize to the first Indian to fly from India to England and back. He lost out to Aspy Engineer, another Parsi, who ended up as the second chief of the Indian Air Force. It was characteristic of JRD’s generosity of spirit that he loaned four spark plugs to his rival when the two crossed paths in Alexandria as they flew in opposite directions.

RD’s plan was that JRD should study at Cambridge University. But before he could finish his preparatory course, JRD, a French citizen, was conscripted into the French cavalry. On his return to India in 1925, his father, perhaps having a premonition of his own death, insisted that the young man join the family firm. JRD was very conscious of his lack of a college education and often referred to himself deprecatingly as ‘semi-educated’, although he was a very well-read man indeed. John Peterson, a retired ICS officer who was director of Tata Steel at Bombay, was his official mentor at the firm.

JRD’s first major proposal at work was that the Tatas start a postal air service from London to Karachi in partnership with the South African-born Nevill Vintcent, an experienced pilot. Tata chairperson Dorabji was by this time old and unreceptive to new concepts. It was Peterson who pleaded for JRD’s project, pointing out that the cost was not prohibitive. On 15 October 1932, a small crowd gathered at the Karachi airport, including the city’s postmaster. They had come to cheer JRD as he started on his inaugural run on a Puss Moth, carrying the mail to Ahmedabad and onwards to Bombay. ‘Those were adventurous days,’ JRD recalled years later in Beyond the Last Blue Mountain, a biography of the tycoon by R.M. Lala, a former director of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. ‘We had no navigational or landing aids on the ground or in the air and no radio.’ Two planes, three pilots and three mechanics was what it took to start Tata Airlines. From a mail service, it was just a small step flying passengers. By 1946, Tata Airlines carried one out of every three passengers in the country. JRD’s plan was to make his airline international under the name ‘Air India International’, as a joint enterprise with the government.

JRD was only twenty-two and was still to find his feet in India when R.D. Tata died of a heart attack in Paris. He discovered that his spendthrift father, unlike the thrifty Dorabji, was heavily in debt. Dorabji, by this time old, crabby and suffering from severe diabetes, insisted that JRD pay off his father’s debts to him, though the debts to Tata Sons were waived in view of RD’s lifelong services to the company. JRD was forced to sell the family house, Soonita, named after his late mother, in Bombay as well as the estate in Hardelot and the Poona house. After he had cleared his father’s debts, all that was left were the shares in Tata Sons. According to Russi Lala, ‘This was a third of the total.’ Although RD’s will had left JRD the bulk of the money from dividends, the fair-minded JRD insisted on dividing it equally between himself and his siblings. JRD did, however, take his father’s place as a director of Tata Sons and also took Indian citizenship.

His siblings were only marginally involved in the family firm. The eldest, Sylla, was a keen tennis player and JRD’s favourite. She married Fali Petit who inherited the Petit baronetcy. Darab, the second son, was friendly and popular but had no head for business, though he was a director at Tatas. ‘He suffered from a nervous disorder and JRD was rather unsympathetic,’ Mithoo Coorlawla, a friend of the family, told me. Rodabeh, JRD’s younger sister, married Colonel Leslie Sawhny, who worked at the Tata group and was JRD’s executive assistant. Sawhny, Ratan Tata says, was once perceived as a possible head of the group by JRD. Unfortunately, Sawhny died fairly young of a heart attack on the golf course. Rodabeh became a respected interior decorator. The youngest son, Jimmy, a trainee fighter pilot died tragically in an air crash when he was only twenty.

JRD met his wife Thelly because of his love of fast cars. A police case had been registered against him for speeding his blue Bugatti along Peddar Road and causing an accident. He had been advised to consult Jack Vicaji, a top criminal lawyer. There he met Vicaji’s niece Thelly, who was half-Parsi, half-English. Her Parsi ancestors were pioneers in banking in India and were in charge of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s mint. The family later became bankrupt after differences with the Nizam, since the ruler borrowed Rs 41 lakhs from them and refused to pay it back. In 1840, a silver coin was minted with the initials ‘PV’ and was called the ‘Pestanshah sikka’—the only time a coin was named after a Parsi and not some member of a royal house.

The beautiful and elegant Thelly’s life revolved around her husband, but he had other interests as well. Author Zareer Masani, whose family lived next door to the Tatas and whose father Minoo once worked as JRD’s executive assistant, wrote that JRD’s marriage was unhappy: he was notoriously unfaithful and his wife obsessively jealous. ‘His French accent and Gallic charm made him irresistible to the ladies and a succession of pretty women flitted in and out of his long life. One of them, I later discovered, was my mother.’ But JRD was too kind-hearted to ever leave his childless wife, fearing it would destroy the fragile Thelly, who had suffered a stroke in the 1980s.

When Saklatwala died in Europe six years after he took over as chairperson, JRD was only thirty-four. Other than Navajbai, he was the only surviving permanent director on the board. The other directors were impressed with his sincerity, dedication and team spirit, with Ardeshir Dalal, the first Indian to be municipal commissioner of Bombay, as the only sceptic. A severe man, Dalal feared that India’s largest industrial empire would be run by a playboy interested in fast cars and planes. Within a year, he admitted privately that he was completely wrong in his assessment. JRD made two important decisions on taking over: he formed a talented, brainy advisory group and delegated authority. He joked that he did not want to end up like his predecessor, Saklatwala, rushing from one board meeting to the next.

JRD persuaded leading luminaries of the era to join the company, either on the board of Tata Sons, or as senior executives. J.D. Choksi, John Mathai, Sir Jehangir Ghandy, Kish Naoroji, Sumant Moolgaokar, P.A. Narialwala, Nani Palkhivala, Shahrukh Sabhawala, Bobby Kooka and Sir Homi Mody were some of his notable appointees. The top men in the group had varied backgrounds and temperaments. Dr John Mathai, who was a minister in the interim government under Jawaharlal Nehru, was a very respected economist and was one of the main authors of the Bombay Plan. He had famously disagreed with Nehru about establishing the Planning Commission. Sir Homi Mody, a self-made man, was chairperson of numerous prestigious bodies, and served on the Viceroy’s Executive Council and was later appointed governor of Uttar Pradesh. Sumant Moolgaokar, a visionary, and the father of India’s heavy engineering industry and architect of TELCO (later Tata Motors), was a key executive at Tata and a power in his own right. A loner and something of a recluse, Moolgaokar was completely immersed in his job. ‘TELCO was his heart and soul and he ruled the company with an iron hand,’ Ratan Tata says, ‘building it into the foremost engineering company in India in those days.’ Despite his non- Parsi surname, Moolgaokar was very much part of the Tatas’ inner circle—a man JRD admired greatly, and ‘one whom no one, not even JRD, questioned,’ according to Ratan Tata. The Tata SuMo car is named after him, being an amalgamation of the first two letters of his name and surname, and not a reference to Japanese wrestling as most assume. The colourful Russi Mody, Sir Homi Mody’s son, was chairperson of Tata Steel and in his time regarded as the emperor of the steel town, Jamshedpur. Brilliant at labour relations, he developed close links with several Indian politicians, which stood the company in good stead. Minoo Masani, JRD’s former chief executive assistant, was for a time an MP from the Swatantra Party and the leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Bobby Kooka was the witty, offbeat advertising head of Air India whose memorable campaigns sold the airline brand very successfully, even if his irreverent humour tended to infuriate some strait-laced Indian parliamentarians.

One reason why JRD was so admired and respected was because he treated all people equally, with courtesy, kindness and consideration. He hated receiving special treatment, was humility personified, modest about his abilities and loyal and supportive towards all who worked in the group. He might have flared up on occasion but was quick to offer profuse apologies. Sudha Murthy, author, chairperson of the philanthropic Infosys Foundation and wife of Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, recalls that after her graduation from IISc Bangalore, she saw an advertisement for engineers in TELCO which specified that only male engineers could apply. She wrote a postcard to JRD protesting this requirement, pointing to its retrogressive nature, especially unexpected from a firm founded by Jamsetji Tata.

At JRD’s immediate intervention, she received a telegram calling her for the interview. She became the first woman engineer to work on the Tata shop floor. Eight years later, when she was leaving the Tatas, Sudha bumped into JRD on the steps of Bombay House. He was concerned that her husband had not arrived to pick her up as it was late and she was alone, and so kept her company and inquired about her future plans. She disclosed that she was leaving the group to help her husband start a new software company and expressed her fears about its future. He assured her the company would do well, and said that if she made money, she must be sure to give some back to society.Murthy still keeps a picture of JRD in her office as a reminder of a man who had time and concern for every employee in his company. In fact, many retired employees still display a photograph of JRD in their homes as a mark of admiration and respect.

(Extracted with permission from The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas by Coomi Kapoor published by Westland Non-Fiction, July 2021)

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Published on October 05, 2021

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