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Malavika Sang­ghvi is a colum­nist and writer for DNA (Daily News Anal­y­sis) In­dia.

It was to be a meet­ing be­tween Ratan Tata, chair­per­son of Tata Sons, and a vis­it­ing head-of-state in Mum­bai, a few years ago. “I had ini­ti­ated a tea be­tween the two as the vis­it­ing states­man was stay­ing at the Taj and though there was to be a huge ban­quet for him later that evening, I knew Mr Tata would not at­tend; and even if he did, he would be too shy to en­gage with the dig­ni­tary. “So, as he was also chair­per­man of In­dia Ho­tels Com­pany, I sent a re­quest seek­ing an ap­point­ment,” says a se­nior Taj em­ployee. “When I went to fetch Mr Tata, it was ob­vi­ous how un­com­fort­able he was,” he says, “I could see how re­luc­tant he was hav­ing to meet a per­fect stranger– al­beit a very fa­mous and pow­er­ful one.

“I tried to al­le­vi­ate this awk­ward­ness by ini­ti­at­ing most of the con­ver­sa­tion, but it was hard work.” Only when the con­ver­sa­tion steered to­wards ar­chi­tec­ture, some­thing Tata is pas­sion­ate about and which he stud­ied as a young man, “did he re­lax and the awk­ward si­lences dis­ap­peared.”

Gatsby of Sas­soon Dock

“No one vis­its Mr Tata. He lives a star­tlingly soli­tary and reclu­sive life,” a neigh­bour of the 78-year-old res­i­dent of the el­e­gant but mod­est (for his stature) man­sion at the end of Co­laba says. “The chair­man emer­i­tus of In­dia’s lead­ing cor­po­ra­tion, one of the tallest lead­ers of In­dia Inc., leads a puz­zlingly aus­tere and soli­tary re­tire­ment,” said the con­cerned wo­man, whose own sump­tu­ous apart­ment is not too far from Tata’s.

The lady is a clear ad­mirer. Tata’s idio­syn­cra­sies, his love of dogs, his al­most quaint old world rec­ti­tude when com­pared to the gaudier face of the newer cap­tains of In­dia Inc, re­flects her own.

Her face lights up as she de­scribes how only a very small hand­ful of loyal staff and faith­ful col­leagues come and go out of the great man’s sea­side home.

“It ap­pears as if his old staff are more or less his fam­ily,” she says fondly. “This year, when they ob­served a ro­bust Gan­pati fes­ti­val in their quar­ters, he sport­ingly walked a few min­utes along with much fire crack­ers and a tin pot band as the de­ity made its way to the sea,” she says, al­most rev­er­en­tial in her ar­dour for The Great Gatsby of Sas­soon Dock.

Ev­ery­one’s Mr Tata

Such is the po­si­tion that Mr Tata oc­cu­pies in In­dia’s fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal that ev­ery­one has a view about him and ev­ery­one has their own Ratan Tata story. Thus I found my­self one day in a den­tist’s chair, wit­ness to a great breach of pa­tient con­fi­den­tial­ity as the den­tist proudly showed me a re­cently set mould of Mr Tata’s up­pers and low­ers. “He has one of the worst cases of Brux­ism I’ve ever known,” said the overly forth­com­ing gent as I gulped at the in­dis­cre­tion. Any­one who has an in­ter­net con­nec­tion can know that the con­di­tion – an ex­ces­sive grind­ing of one’s teeth–is re­lated to ex­tremely high lev­els of stress and a mostly un­ex­pressed white rage. “Tata was ex­tremely up­set by what he viewed as a de­par­ture from the Bom­bay House ethos and the dis­man­tling of the Tata legacy,” said an Avid Bom­bay House Watcher (ABHW) (yes, they ex­ist as a le­git­i­mate com­mu­nity in the busi­ness world). “The way peo­ple like Ray­mond Bick­son were dis­missed,” says the ABHW. “The way he was not taken into con­fi­dence on ma­jor de­ci­sions. He must have been seething.”


White hot, seething rage is what most likely led to the head­line-caus­ing, mar­ket-im­pact­ing, un­prece­dented sack­ing of Tata chair­per­son Cyrus Mistry last week. “The seething in­can­des­cent anger of a man who is slow to of­fend but dan­ger­ous when pro­voked,” is how one Mum­bai wag de­scribed it. “Given the high moral ground oc­cu­pied by the Tatas, the enor­mity of its op­er­a­tions, the re­spon­si­bil­ity it owes its mil­lions of share­hold­ers, the com­mand­ing po­si­tion it holds in the world arena—what hap­pened is absolutely un­prece­dented,” says the watcher.

The pre­lude

How did mat­ters come to such a head? How did the scions of two of the Parsi com­mu­nity’s most revered and gen­teel clans, re­lated by mar­riage end up in this shame­ful turn of events? The Tata clan is al­most a mir­ror im­age of the Mistry’s. If the Tatas are a grand, reclu­sive and up­right clan, the Mistrys are no less. Known for the same dog-lov­ing, phil­an­thropic, old-world rec­ti­tude, Pal­lonji Shapoorji Mistry the pa­tri­arch, is not only a US$16.9 bil­lion (F$34.93bn) con­struc­tion ty­coon, but also the sec­ond largest stake­holder in Tata Sons with his 18.4 per cent slice. His son Cryus Mistry, the hard­searched for now-ousted chair­per­son, is by all ac­counts a re­fined, soft­spo­ken pol­ished gen­tle­man, who, it is said, did his best to set things right in the vast but poorly run em­pire he in­her­ited. “Ul­ti­mately, there are larger ques­tions in­volved,” says the ABHW. “Do the means jus­tify the end? In want­ing to res­cue the ‘Tata ethos’, has the man­ner of Mistry’s sack­ing eroded it fur­ther?” he asks.

“And shouldn’t a pro­fes­sion­ally-run com­pany be al­lowed to func­tion the way its top pro­fes­sional sees best?” I am re­minded of the de­li­cious irony of a di­ary item car­ried in the Fi­nan­cial Times a few years ago, which de­scribed the au­gust foyer of Bom­bay House as be­ing lit­tered with the supine bodies of sleep­ing strays on the pre­cise sanc­tion of Ratan Tata. Last week’s turn of events could be be­cause he de­cided not to let some sleep­ing dogs lie any longer. Or just the case of one man’s seething be­ing an­other man’s door.

Ousted Cyrus Mistry (left), and Ratan Tata, in­terim chair­per­son of Tata Sons.

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