Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, turns 84 today, December 28, 2021. It’s a life lived through the prism of values and ethics, much to everyone’s surprise, and many a time, at both huge professional and personal cost.
But that is what Ratan Tata is all about. For him, it is always about doing the right thing, not the convenient one.To talk about him in mere corporate terms would be doing the man a huge disservice for he transcended the vanilla corporate avatar a long time ago. A lot has been written about Ratan’s early years, his move back from Cornell, and then being thrown into the hurly burly of corporate life by none other than J R D Tata. Tales have also been told of his keenness for the things that matter to every Indian, which is why the Tata Trusts, that he chairs to this day, have been at the forefront of giving back in great measure — be it solutions for water conservation or getting internet access for the rural womenfolk of India.
But that is not what this piece is about.
This is about the man Ratan really is. His beliefs, his demeanour, and above all his humanism. All of which he keeps fiercely guarded because of the intensely private person he is.
Very few can imagine the man’s perseverance about design and how it can help humanity. His undying affection for pets is a testament to the man’s heart and the pain he suffers when an animal does. I still remember he was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Prince Charles in February 2018. All arrangements had been made at Buckingham Palace and two days before the event he calls me to say one of his dogs was unwell and he didn’t have the heart to travel and would I convey this to Prince Charles. Something I did only to be told by Prince Charles, that this (Ratan) was an honourable man.
Tales of his compassion are now legion. But what is not known is the pain the man has gone through, a pain that he has kept to himself and not allowed others to be touched by. The whole Mistry issue was not something he wished for. But it was the right fight. A fight to protect a legacy of goodness and doing what is right by country and community. But then he was alone fighting the fight. Barbs were directed him, sullying comments made and innuendoes hurled but that did not deter Ratan from doing what he thought needed to be done.
I still remember, Monday, October 24, 2016, when the Tata Sons Board had expressed its loss of faith in the then Chairman Cyrus Mistry and had requested Ratan Tata to step in as interim Chairman. Ratan was not happy. He never wanted things to play out this way. Which is why when N Chandrasekaran was appointed Chairman of Tata Sons, Ratan not only heaved a sigh of relief but he looked upon this chapter as one of learning and recognising which people actually believed in the values of the Tata group.
What is also little known is the brilliant mimic he is, the superb advisor on design he always has been and remains to this day. For instance, the insightful advice he gave my wife Lakshmi on the pool we are building in our home in Goa was remarkable.
I can go on and on about the expanse of the man’s mind or his mental rigour when it comes to problem solving. But that would only be half the Ratan Tata.
2021 has been a year of great challenges for Ratan Tata and I have seen him take the year in his stride with firmness and determination. The Mistry case judgmentwas a vindication of the values that he has always held dear. And the return of Air India to the House of Tata was for him not a victory but a humble recognition that ultimately goodness is what prevails.
For almost three decades, people had lobbied against the Tatas entering aviation but this was not to last. In the many meals that we have had at his simple and yet charming home in Mumbai, I have seen Ratan talk about the country more than about the companies he is associated with. For the young, he remains inspirational as he invests in start-ups which have reformist ideas. His love for animals remains boundless as does his love for common decency.
For me, and perhaps for billions across the world, he is the quintessential Indian. Blending civilisational legacy with a strong belief in humanity’s essential goodness. He continues to steer many ships as an elder statesman but remains young at heart, always willing to learn and more importantly, share. His ability to read and process has not dimmed in the least nor has his desire to always remain in the background.
His habits remain disarmingly simple and his manners to this day, the epitome of what is the gold standard.Many are defined either by wealth or power. Ratan Tata can be best defined by decency.