This Article is From Sep 05, 2021

Excerpt: Ratan Tata's Embarrassment On Being Driven To School In Rolls-Royce

Excerpt: Ratan Tata's Embarrassment On Being Driven To School In Rolls-Royce

Cover of Peter Casey's book 'The Story of Tata: 1868 to 2021'

Ratan received his earliest sustained experience of the world beyond the Tatas when his grandmother enrolled him at Campion School. Established in 1943 by a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph Savall, Campion was-and is-a day school located on Cooperage Road, across the street from Mumbai's principal soccer stadium, Cooperage Ground. Despite its proximity to a sports stadium, Ratan recalls having little interest in sports in school. 'I don't remember too much about sports [in school],' he says. 'I remember that my grandmother used to have this huge antiquated Rolls-Royce and she used to send that car to pick my brother and me up from school. Both of us used to be so ashamed of that car that we used to walk back home. That is the sport that I remember.' Indeed, after a time, he arranged for Lady Navajbai's chauffeur to drop him off some distance from the school, lest his classmates think he was spoilt.

Like most children, Ratan was eager to fit in. And like most children, he wasn't always thrilled about studying. 'The Parsi community is very particular about good education,' Ratan told an interviewer for Daily News & Analysis in 2010. As if going to a demanding school were not hard enough work, Ratan recalls, 'Most of us were forced to have tuitions [small-group tutoring sessions] whether you wanted it or not after school. Life was quite a drudgery in those days.' But when he was pressed to give advice to students of today, Ratan emphasized that the 'most important thing that you look back on is the quality of education that you were given', and he implied that a reliable measure of that quality is the degree of drudgery you felt when that education was being administered to you. 'In school, in college...Campion, Cathedral, Cornell and, later, the Harvard Business School (HBS)-each one of them was terrible when you were there, questionable when you got out, and later became something that you really cherished and considered worthwhile.'

At Campion, he 'liked physics a lot' but not chemistry, perhaps because physics invites you to ask the very biggest questions, whereas chemistry is more limited in scope. Physics reaches beyond the intellect to touch the imagination. When Ratan was in the 9th standard, Campion School could not afford to build the additional facilities required, and all the students in the 9th standard were obliged to transfer to other schools. Ratan transferred to the Cathedral and John Connon School, another high-end Mumbai day school. Where Campion was ranked second throughout India, Cathedral was ranked first. While the motto of Campion was Gaudium in Veritate ('Joy in Truth'), that of Cathedral was Clarum Efficiunt Studia ('Studies Maketh Famous'). Campion was established in 1943. Cathedral was much more venerable, having been founded in 1860, and it had - and has today - a reputation as a training academy for the children of India's richest and most elite families, especially those families associated with Indian business. Numerous Tatas and Mistrys attended, including Cyrus, but so did the likes of Bollywood actress Amisha Patel; diplomat Arundhati Ghose; supermodel Ashwin Shetty; internationally distinguished journalist Fareed Zakaria; Booker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai; founder of Pakistan Muhammad, Ali Jinnah; and another Booker Prize winner, the controversial novelist Salman Rushdie.

At Cathedral, Ratan was in rarefied company, yet he recalls, 'None of us was flamboyant in those days and it didn't matter whether you were rich or poor. There was a terrific amount of camaraderie.' He considered this democratic fellow-feeling the single greatest value conveyed by his education, since he commented that, 'unfortunately, we tend to disengage from [such equalizing camaraderie] when we walk out of school or walk out of college'. It is, he said, something we should 'try to preserve'. In 2009, he addressed Cathedral alumni and spoke of his 'dream India', a place 'where every Indian has an equal opportunity to shine on merit. In a country like ours, you have to try to live and lead by example, not flaunt your wealth and prominence.' Indeed, in a 2011 interview published in The Times of India, Ratan expressed dismay and surprise at the lavish lifestyle of some of the senior members of the business community. He was concerned about the lack of empathy for the poor.

Ratan lives in what is usually described as a 'modest house in Mumbai', which it is. Despite the camaraderie he felt in school, Ratan confessed to being shy. 'One thing I have never recovered from is a fear of public speaking. The only people speaking publicly in school were those reading out the sermon at assembly and those participating in debates. I wasn't among either. Nor was I into too many extra-curricular activities. In that, I missed the full culture of Cathedral and it's my loss.' Indeed, there were times when Ratan doubted he would survive to graduate. 'Cathedral for me was a mixed bag. I particularly remember a mathematics teacher who, I felt, was determined that I never complete school. He almost succeeded.'

Ratan Tata's childhood, while very far from being sad, was also seriously disrupted by his parents' marital discord and divorce. Things like these happen in all families-but the Tatas are both a family and a family business, an enormous family business of great consequence to India and to employees, partners, investors and other stakeholders all over the world. For this reason, the Tatas have handled such commonly occurring disruptions differently than other families.

Indian business historian Gita Piramal says that she has argued with Ratan over her perception that he was 'never...fully reconciled to being the scion of a family firm.' She implies that the reason for what she sees as Ratan's ambivalence is that the 'Tatas are a reconstructed family who adopt and cobble together people to make a family. That way they do promote talent rather than blood relations. Ratan was clearly talented, but he resents the implication.'

Nevertheless, Piramal's choice of words, 'cobble together', is glib. Clearly, the family members who were or are also leaders of the family business have always recognized that the Tata Group is bigger not only than any individual but also than any single family. For this reason, they have always been willing to give nature a helping hand. As Randeep Ramesh put it in a 2008 article for The Guardian, 'In many ways Ratan Tata is an accidental millionaire, a gifted interloper in a family that had everything but children...The Tatas slowly built up a formidable business but by 1917 the family was running out of heirs...'

What the Tatas did possess in abundance, however, was rootedness in India's Parsi community. It is a small and ethnic group - 69,000 as of 2006 and declining - concentrated in and around Mumbai, as well as in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, in addition to Karachi, Pakistan. Today's Parsis - their name means 'Persians'-are descended from refugees who fled Persia (modern Iran) during the 8th through 10th centuries, the period of the Arab conquest of their country. The Zoroastrianism they practise is a very ancient faith, which history first records in the 5th century bc, predating both Christianity and Islam, and has as its 'basic doctrine...a universal ethical precept: 'Good thoughts, good words, good deeds"'.

The moral and spiritual duty of a Zoroastrian may be stated quite straightforwardly: it is to do the right thing because it is the right thing, and to live life such that what you say and what you do make the lives of others better. This compact constellation of values is held by the Parsi community in India that has also developed a rich culture of business and trade.

In contrast to the West, where religious values often clash with or are assumed to be incompatible with competitive capitalism, among the Indian Parsis, doing business is not only compatible with ethical and philanthropic action, it is essential to it. The objective of a successful business is to do well by doing good. For the Parsis, making a profit is not a zero-sum game; winning does not require making someone else a loser. On the contrary, a good business makes money and makes the lives of others in the community better.

The Tata family as a business family is a combination of genetics, strategic marriage, adoption and mentoring. It is very likely that Ratan's rise to leadership benefitted from the willingness of the Tatas to 'cobble together', from wherever in the extended family they found it, the talent needed to grow and prosper the family business. Ratan paid and sacrificed a lot for his inheritance. Yes, there were many benefits but, overall, his commitment to the Tata Legacy deprived him of the joys of parenthood. If Ratan had married and had five or six children, would he have been able to devote himself to the mission that was an integral part of his DNA? It was nothing less than a part of his childhood or, at least, certain aspects of it. Yet his character evolved away from the dominating influence of his father and others, while remaining open to the religious and ethical values the Tatas shared with India's small but remarkably influential Parsi community. These values are perhaps his family's greatest gift to him.

Published with permission of Penguin Random House from 'The Story of Tata: 1868 to 2021' by Peter Casey. Order your copy here.

Disclaimer: The author and publisher of the book are solely responsible for the contents of the book or any excerpt derived therefrom. NDTV shall not be responsible or liable for any claims arising from the contents of the book including any claims of defamation, infringement of intellectual property rights or any other right of any third party or of law.