August 2004 | Maneck Dalal

One of a kind

Maneck Dalal*, a long-time associate, reminisces about JRD Tata’s passion for aviation, abhorrence for pomposity and concern and love for ordinary people

My association with JRD Tata goes back to early 1946, when I joined Tata Airlines [the original avatar of Air India]. I first met him at a party hosted by Jamshed Bhabha and his wife, Betty, at Mumbai's Willingdon Club. What struck me immediately about him was his willingness to, and interest in, talking to a junior employee such as me. He did this as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and not as the chairman of a company to one of his underlings.

I was impressed with the questions he asked and with his sharp mind. He expected prompt and intelligent responses (he could be scathing when confronted with shallowness). One of JRD's greatest qualities was this ability to treat everyone as an equal. He'd argue fiercely for what he thought was right, but he never gave the impression that you had to accept all that he said. He was keen to convince you he was right, but if you could persuade him otherwise he would accept your point of view.

I remember this incident when I was with Air India in London and we needed a new business premises. I had to move quickly to secure an expensive building in New Bond Street. I did not have time to wait for the sanction to come through from Bombay House [the Tata headquarters], so I paid what was called 'key money' (pugree in India). JRD happened to come to London a few days later and he was railing at me even as he was alighting from the plane. "I don't want to make side payments to people," he thundered. I asked him to see the proposition before letting loose and went on to explain how and why I did what I had to do. Big man that he was, he saw my side and immediately sent a telex back home: "Accept Dalal's proposition fully. Please put it up to the board and recommend that the chairman has suggested it."

This sense of fairness and decisive decision-making were characteristic of JRD. He could never suffer fools and pompous people; he was extremely intolerant of such types, but as a boss and as a human being he was quite remarkable. He could be impatient at times (he wasn't a saint in that respect), but he was a likeable person and a wonderful leader. He had a basic respect for human beings which was quite touching, and he was particularly sympathetic to the lower echelons of his staff.

JRD used to have this servant with several children and a wife. The man passed away and his wife and kids decided to go back to their relatives in Pakistan. JRD paid their airfare and, what's more, escorted them personally to Karachi. This was after arranging for their family to come from their village and pick them up at the airport. The junior staff — peons, liftmen and others — loved him; he would constantly be asking after them.

He was always curious about technology and the way things worked. I remember this episode from the time when a man called Sir Fredrick James was the managing director of the Tata group's overseas arm in London. JRD had come calling and, on his way to the office, stopped by where the telephone operator sat. The lady's name was Mrs Owen and she had this complicated switchboard in front of her. JRD promptly started trying to learn how she manoeuvred all those switches. He must have, in the process, messed up all the lines because Sir James was soon down in the lobby shouting furiously at Mrs Owen for botching up his telephone. JRD was quick to the operator's rescue, saying, "It's all right, Jimmy, it was me."

JRD was a bit thrifty and he was never given to ostentatious displays of wealth. I recall going to his place for dinner in a Tata office car, which happened to be of American make. JRD used a home-grown Fiat those days, one that he himself drove. I joked that we couldn't have our chairman driving around so shabbily and he replied that he felt embarrassed to drive in those grand affairs. Fact is, he did have a bigger car — but that was mostly used to ferry his servants' children to the park and the beach.

Although JRD was chairman of an empire spread across several industries, it was the airline business — and aviation — that remained closest to his heart. His passion for flight was sparked when he was growing up in France and it stayed with him to his last days. Right to the end it still used to fascinate him that an aeroplane could carry 400-plus people, not to mention cargo and mail, and waft through the air at great speeds to far-flung destinations.

He was forever a flying man and he was the first Indian to become a licensed pilot. Here, too, his sporting nature and generosity of spirit marked him out. There was this prize instituted by the Aga Khan for the person who covered the Bombay-London stretch in the fastest time. JRD was pitted in this race against Aspi Engineer, who later headed the Indian Air Force. The two were flying in opposite directions and their paths happened to intersect in Cairo. Engineer was in trouble at that point with one of his aircraft's parts, and he did not have resources to replace it. Realising that winning the prize meant more to his rival than himself, JRD gave him the spare part that he had. Engineer went on to claim the reward.

Tata Airlines (and Air India afterwards) was JRD's fondest love. The internationalism of the business was, I think, one reason why JRD felt a greater pull from it than he did from, say, the steel enterprise. This bias was so obvious that some senior Tata directors would jokingly criticise him for spending more time with Air India than he did on the entire Tata group of companies.

JRD remained as chairman after Air India was nationalised and he continued to spend an enormous amount of time on it, though he got no money at all for it. He was very particular about details, sometimes ludicrously so. If the airhostesses displayed any unsightly bulges he would write a note asking them to be more particular about their fitness. He had this little black book in which he wrote all his comments every time he flew with the carrier. Beyond aviation, JRD liked adventure and he adored racing cars.

He was, obviously, one of India's leading entrepreneurs (the word wasn't even used those days). His go-ahead attitude separated him from lesser mortals and his vision was quite outstanding. He once told me he had won more recognition abroad than in India; this was before the government honoured with the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna.

Jawaharlal Nehru admired JRD, but the leaders who followed did not have much time for his kind of person. They probably thought he was too western in his outlook. That's a pity because JRD had so much love for this country and its people. He had genuine affection for the poor, was extremely humane, and he was a truly good Indian.

Population control was almost a fetish for JRD. He thought India's destination would be defined by two factors: population and education (he always regretted not being able to go to Cambridge). He felt that the country's destiny lay in controlling its population and in ensuring its people were educated. He fervently believed that India had great intellectual talent.

Naval Tata was totally different from JRD. He had more patience than JRD and his leadership style, too, was different. If you were wrong about something, JRD would not hesitate to tick you off. Naval would be more kind. The one similarity between the two was their generosity.

Jamsetji Tata swam against the tide, not because he wanted to but because the tide was strongly against him. Indians faced a huge amount of prejudice then. It didn't suit British interests to have Indians progressing too fast in areas where the empire could be threatened economically. For somebody like him, coming from a colonised country and one considered backward, to even contemplate establishing a steel plant was out of the ordinary.

*Maneck Dalal joined Tata Airlines in 1946 and was involved in setting up Air India's London office two years later. He was the managing director of Tata Limited from 1977 to 1988.