Tatas: Not merely about buses | Sunday Observer

Tatas: Not merely about buses

12 September, 2021

Title: The Tatas: How a Family Built a Business and a Nation
Author: Girish Kuber
Translator: Vikrant Pande
Publisher: Harper Business

What bus company has made the most number of buses running in Sri Lanka? Most probably it is the Tata bus company in India.

Tata is the most sought-after brand when someone seeks to buy a bus (or lorry as well). Tata became such a familiar name for Sri Lankans that anyone knows that it refers to a bus. But Tata emerged not out of the bus category, but out of business by a respected and leading business family in India spanning 200 years. Girish Kuber, a veteran journalist, chronicles the story of this family legacy in this book.

Nusserwanji Tata

It all starts with Nusserwanji Tata, a middle-class Parsi priest from the village of Navsari in Gujarat, who was born in 1822. He headed to Bombay (now Mumbai) with his wife Jeevanbai and their infant child Jamsetji to start a business – a cotton trading. He was the first in his family to do so. However, he had neither higher education nor knowledge of business matters to engage in business, the only qualification he had was a burning passion to carve a path of his own.

What Nusserwanji started as a cotton trading venture, his son Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904) grew into a multifaceted business. He joined his father’s export trading firm in 1858 after an education at Elphinstone College in Bombay.

In fact, he had an extraordinary business instinct and helped establish branches of the company in Japan, China, Europe, and the United States. In this way, starting from trading of cotton and opium (which was legal back then) he set up cotton mills in Nagpur and Mumbai.

Then, laying the foundation of building India’s first steel manufacturing company and the Taj Mahal hotel, both of which fructified after his death and were nurtured and brought up by his two sons, Sir Dorabji Tata and Sir Ratan Tata.

Their legacy was continued by Jehangir Rantanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata who dared to foray the group into aviation by setting up India’s first airline, Tata Aviation Services (originally an air mail service) and later rechristened Air India as India’s first commercial airline. Finally, Ratan Naval Tata, who succeeded JRD as the group chairman, led the group’s entry into the information technology sector, apart from building passenger cars. Ratan Tata, born in 1937, became the fifth chairman of the Tata Group and retired in 2012.

It is more than just a history of the industrial house; it is an inspiring account of India in the making. It chronicles how each generation of the family invested not only in the expansion of its own business interests but also in nation building.

Few know, for instance, that the first hydro power project in the world was conceived and built by the Tatas. Nor that some radical labour concepts such as eight-hour work shifts were born in India, at the Tata mill in Nagpur. The Tata Cancer Research Centre, the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, as also the national carrier Air India - the family has a long, rich and unrivalled legacy.

The book is a tribute to a line of visionaries who have a special place in the hearts and minds of ordinary Indians. And it is also the only book that tells the complete Tata story spanning almost two hundred years.

Family tree

It is clear for readers if the family tree of Tatas is mentioned. As described earlier, the business of Tatas started from Nusserwanji Tata (1822 - 1904). Nusserwanji had five children, but three of them died early and two, Jamshetji and Virbalji, survived. Jamshetji (born on March 3, 1839 – died on May 19, 1904) took the baton of business from his father, earning a name as one of the fathers of Indian industry.

Jamsetji had two sons, Dorabji and Ratanji. Dorabji Tata, the elder son (1859-1932) became a prominent Indian industrialist, philanthropist and the second Chairman of the Tata Group. His wife, Meherbai Tata, was the paternal aunt of nuclear scientist Homi J. Bhabha. But the couple had no children. The younger son Ratanji Tata (1871–1918) was a philanthropist and pioneer of poverty studies. After Ratanji Tata died without children, his wife, Navajbai Tata, adopted an orphan named Naval and raised him as her own son.

This orphan boy, Naval Tata’s (1904–1989), biological maternal grandmother was the sister of Hirabai Tata, wife of group founder Jamshetji Tata. Also, his biological father, Hormusji Tata, had belonged to the broader Tata family, and Naval, therefore, carried the surname “Tata” by birthright.

Director in several Tata companies, ILO member, recipient of Padma Bhushan, he married twice and had three sons. The first two, Ratan Tata and Jimmy Tata were from his first wife, Sooni Commissariat, while third son, Noel Tata, was from his second wife, Simone Naval Tata, a Swiss woman and a Catholic - she ran Lakme and served as chairperson of Trent. So Noel Tata ended up becoming chairperson of Trent, and Ratan Tata, born in 1937, became fifth Chairman of the Tata Group.

There is another character in the Tatas’ family who became the fourth Chairman of the Tata Group and pioneered Indian aviation and founded Tata Airlines (later known as Air India). He is J. R. D. Tata (1904–1993), son of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata. Who is Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata? He (1856–1926) was one of the early stalwarts to serve the Tata Group. His father Dadabhoy and Jeevanbai - mother of Jamshetji Tata - were siblings.

Importance of the book

This book won the Gaja Capital Business Book Prize in 2019, and has many interesting anecdotes of stories, struggles, trials and tribulations, and also many jubilations behind the family’s journey. By and large, three themes spring up from it. The first is how the Tatas contributed to nation building at a time when the British were very much ruling India.

The second theme that comes out strongly is how the Tatas nurtured its employees. When Jamsetji set up Empress Mills in Nagpur, the city was laid back; absenteeism was common. Jamsetji devised a retirement fund and an insurance policy to cover medical costs for injuries incurred at work, among the earliest known examples of employee welfare schemes in India.

The third is about the Tatas, especially JRD (Jehangir Rantanji Dadabhoy) Tata, struggled with India’s political heads, particularly in the first two decades after India’s independence – JRDs struggled with politicians such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nehru, and it continued until Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai as well though Nehru family was his close associate.

Writing to ‘Moneycontrol’ magazine in Mumbai, Kayezad E. Adajania, the head of the personal finance bureau at ‘Moneycontrol’, said that the only flaw of the book is that it comes off as slightly one-sided. For the many successes of the Tatas that the book focuses on, its failures aren’t much highlighted. A whole chapter is focused on the struggles that Ratan N. Tata went through to realise his dream small car, but the book is silent on Nano’s struggles in subsequent years after launch. Other businesses that are struggling like aviation or that didn’t yield much like the group’s entry into telecom and its ill-fated acquisition of Corus - Europe’s second-largest steel producer - are virtually absent from the book.

About the author and the translator

The author of this book Girish Kuber is the editor of Loksatta, a Marathi daily from the Indian Express Group. He is a regular columnist in the Indian Express, and also an author of six books in Marathi. Kuber originally wrote and published this book in Marathi in 2015. Vikrant Pande, President of Northern Arc Foundation, Capital, translated the book into English in 2019. He has translated several books from Marathi to English.