‘And he was really trying just to do the best by the shareholders, and by the laws of India.’
Panipat. Plassey. Dandi. Varanasi. Delhi. Pataliputra. Calicut. Kolkata. Haldighati. Kanauj. Mumbai. Oudh. Meerut. Kalinga. Chennai. Bhopal. Bodh Gaya. Mohenjadaro…
To this, or any never-ending list of key places on India’s historical map, one name is always glaring in its omission.
Tiny, sleepy Sanjan in Gujarat
In her book titled The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis, Coomi Kapoor masterfully rectifies this.
She profiles the tiny community of Parsis, who post their historic arrival in Sanjan in the 7th century, went on to change our nation’s narrative when they fanned out to carve their special destiny in other small towns and cities across India.
Small though their numbers were, the influential, proud but generous Parsis changed the course of India’s history in a manner so significant that we really must revise our own idea of our country’s past to acknowledge their contribution.
Be it industry, the freedom movement, free press, the constitution, trade, architecture, construction, music, charitable causes, medicine, the courts, science and intellectualism, law, religion and more, the Parsis with their gentle but vital one-teaspoon-of-sugar-in-a-glass-of-milk approach made an enormous contribution to India’s great story.
Kapoor’s book is not a desiccated, dry telling of the facts of this people’s history and instead, colourfully and romantically, like the Parsis themselves, brings alive the amazing journey the Parsis made to ultimately become powerful and prominent keepers of the best of our traditions.
The tapestry that was the mostly very wealthy Parsi society at the start of the 20th century was incredibly rich and exciting, worthy of a film. It was packed with glitz, glamour, privilege, elegance and a range of characters from ambitious merchant princes and haughty aristocrats to rebels and conscientious leaders, from eccentrics and madcaps to rationalists and realists. It’s a cast of characters has continued that way till right today, even as their population dwindles.
Kapoor profiles the most formidable of Parsi history-makers.
And they are tales of wealth and pelf coupled with a good dollop of righteousness.
The engaging stories of the lively Freddie Mercury, brilliant Zubin Mehta and intriguing Madame Cama exist in this 308-page volume on the Parsis, cheek by jowl, with portraits of the valiant Sam Maneckshaw, the quintessentially upright Nani Palkhivala and the always flamboyant Nusli Wadia.
Each of these characters are multihued and lovable and their profiles are must reads.
Crucially, the book offers its own well-researched account of the Great Parsi Battle Royale that caused a serious rift in the Parsi community, everyone forced to take sides, when it began, behind closed mahogany boardroom doors, on October 24, 2016 — Ratan Tata vs Cyrus Mistry and Nusli Wadia and the control for the house of Tatas.
Kapoor, in a coup of sorts, was able to interview all three opponents.
She speaks to Rediff.com‘s Vaihayasi Pande Daniel. The first of a multi-part interview:
Though your book is so much more than this, its selling point will be the chapters on the Cyrus Mistry-Ratan Tata feud. How difficult was it profile this battle, get to speak to them and which are the details you could not unearth?
Well, yes, I realised straight when I was starting the book, which was around the same time (as the feud), that the Tata-Mistry fight was a very good peg on which to make a readable story. Because the history of their families is really a history of the Parsis in Bombay as well. It all gets intermixed.
It was a little difficult. The first person I got was Mr Cyrus Mistry, an interview with him at the time when the fight was at its height.
But there seemed to have been a cross-connection. Because I sent the list of questions and I made clear that I’m coming all the way to Bombay, and that the interview was on the record. And I did tell him that I would send the transcript of the interview to him afterwards.
The PRO man (for the Mistrys) was horrified that I was keeping the tape on.
But I said ‘I give you my word as a Parsi that I’ll let you see it in case there is anything objectionable’.
I said: ‘I didn’t come here all the way just to now be not sure of what I can report and what I cannot tell’.
When I finally, years later, I sent (the transcript), the secretary replied but said, ‘No, no, you have the mistaken impression. It was all off the record’.
I said: ‘No such thing. I had sent the questions before I came to Bombay’.
Cyrus was very nice. He said, ‘Sorry, there seems to be a misunderstanding’. And that it was okay.
And Mr Tata?
Mr Tata took much longer to get.
He was busy. He was travelling out of the country etcetera. But he did finally agree to see me. It was very kind — he didn’t make any objection to a tape being kept on.
The third one was Nusli Wadia — the most difficult to get — because he travels all over the world most of the time.
I knew people who seemed to know him well, or their parents knew him very well and assured me that they’ll get an interview with him. But it never worked out.
So finally, I just found his phone number. And I sent him a message saying ‘I’m so and so. And we have a common friend, who passed away, Nanaji Deshmukh (the late Jan Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party politician). And he’d always said that it was time the two of us met since we’re both Parsis’.
That seemed to do the trick.
He said: ‘Sure. Next time, I’m in Delhi’.
I held my breath as to which would be the next time! But Nusli Wadia did come (back to me). I sent a message to the secretary that I was coming flying down all this way and that I hope he’s going to spend some time with me.
I didn’t want it to be (an encounter with) a whimsical industrialist, giving me just a little bit of time.
She said, ‘Madam, I can’t dictate these things’.
But I must say it was so worth the visit, because Nusli Wadia just opened up and we talked and talked. The end result was, we had sandwiches while we were talking — there was no time for lunch — and we talked till he left for his plane, and I left for my plane to Delhi.
I also talked to other people too. I think because I took my own time about doing the whole story, gradually, a lot of things came out, which weren’t obvious if you read the financial papers of that time.
But what were some of the things that were difficult to unearth? What could you not unearth? Maybe it was in the interactions with Mr Tata or Mr Mistry, something that just didn’t give?
The two things that I did unearth, which I don’t think were in public domain before, which, I think, were extremely important was how the (enormous tranche of) Tata shares were purchased by the Mistrys.
That was always shrouded in mystery. (Wealthy businessmen and lender to the Tatas) F E Dinshaw’s name was mentioned vaguely and that it was done some time in the 1930s or so, without the consent of the Tatas, turned out to be not so at all.
Nobody listened to the Mistrys, who said it was done with the knowledge of J R D Tata, who was the chairman then, which is true because now the documents have come on record.
Actually, I had got them even before that. The documents came on record when the case came before the national Company Law Board.
It shows very clearly that one lot of shares was bought from JRD’s sister Rodabeh Sawhney, one lot of shares was bought from Sir Ratan Tata Trust and one lot from Darab Tata, JRD’s younger brother.
The last sale JRD was most unhappy about. And he had a shouting match with his brother, which was the second thing I unearthed — why were the Tatas so upset about the third sale and not about the first two sales, which they had encouraged because they were obviously short of funds.
It turned out that in 1969, the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act had come into force. It made things difficult. The Tatas could no longer use the system of a managing agency to manage all their companies. They didn’t hold 50 per cent or anywhere near that number of shares in the companies that they were administrating. So, to their control was slipping, because somebody else had bought some of those shares.
They still had the majority 66 per cent in the trusts. But the law in India was such that charitable trusts are not allowed to vote or vote on company boards.
So, they were in a very tricky position if somebody tried to raid and take over the company, the group rather.
Then I had another major discovery, I feel, was about who actually got the law quietly amended — Section 185 of the Companies Act that makes it clear about how charitable trusts can’t vote.
But a special exception was made for the Tatas through an amendment and who got that amendment?
That again was a scoop, I felt. It was actually Nusli Wadia, with his excellent connections with the BJP government, with Mr Vajpayee then as prime minister, who managed it.
I think I unraveled a lot of the secrets, which were not clear earlier.
One secret still remains: How is that F E Dinshaw’s name is always associated with this takeover?
One can understand the JRD’s siblings selling their shares was because they were in need of money. But why did the trusts sell their shares?
My surmise is — I can’t be sure — that there was some debts outstanding.
Now there are two theories. Either the debt was outstanding, because Shapoorji Pallonji, a very shrewd gentleman had bought the F E Dinshaw company from his estate.
And that company had earlier entered into an agreement with the Tatas of some sort, that they will receive some of the dividends from one of the Tata company. I’m not sure but I think it was Tata Power. The dividends that they were to receive, possibly, were never paid. And that amount was increasing. That’s one theory.
And the other theory is that, well, Shapoorji Pallonji usually built the Tatas’s various construction works. There may have been some debt outstanding from there, in return for which the shares were given.
I don’t know. These are surmises.
That’s the one thing I didn’t discover.
That why should the Sir Ratan Tata Trust sell to the Mistry family? And that too when Naval Tata, Ratan’s father, was the chairman.
Did you find yourself becoming sort of sympathetic to one side or the other?
When you were interviewing each of them, did you feel, one side or another was holding back from telling the actual the truth?
Or it was not so black and white?
Was it sort of hard to be even handed and be the journalist that you had to be, while reporting on this feud?
My sympathies were from the facts.
But I must say that all three were charming and did not hold back when they talked, I must say.
Really, I admire my community in the fact that they observed all the courtesies, which our Delhi politicians don’t always do. They all opened up.
It is true that I had already been warned about Mr Ratan Tata. He does not like to be contradicted so I did not bring up certain ticklish subjects up with him, which I did with the other two.
You know, it’s a journalist’s job to get as much information as we can. So, I didn’t tread on territory which he might have disapproved.
Mr Ratan Tata also made the point, which is true, that at that time, the matter in court, so how could you discuss it, which was fair enough.
So no, you know, my sympathies are with all three.
I think, in a way, each one of them thought that they were doing their duty.
Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong?
The facts I leave the reader to judge for themselves.
But let’s look at it this way: When it comes to Cyrus, people will look on him with suspicion based on his past history. Because after all, he came from a construction background.
His grandfather was known to be a man who was brought up at a rough and ready time.
Whereas the Tatas were considered saintly and noble and not a stone can be cast at them.
Cyrus had that disadvantage. And there was also this feeling that, well Shapoorji, his grandfather, had a reputation that if people didn’t pay up his dues, he took his price. And therefore he might have had a covetous eye on the Tatas for almost a century — that is the Tata side of things.
But when I investigated, I found that most business journalists backed whatever Cyrus Mistry said. Even I could make out that Cyrus was a very sincere man. And he was really trying just to do the best by the shareholders, and by the laws of India.
And he was overwhelmed with work. He seemed to be a very conscientious, honest and — I believe — a very good businessman at that. So, I don’t think he got his fair due.
And the fact that he didn’t do a bad job can be judged from the fact that whatever plans he laid down were actually followed by his successor. What was the need to get rid of him if you are insinuating that he was a bad businessman?
But then you have the third character, Nusli Wadia, who was so handsome that my cousin said that you must have been bowled over (laughs heartily).
But he was the most interesting of the three, I felt.
I have a question about him later he because he seemed to be the star of your book.
Apart from the Tatas, there’s such a lot of interesting things about Nusli Wadia, which are not generally known.
His links with the Jan Sangh party.
His numerous corporate feuds and how he went about them.
The fact that he is Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s grandson and the fact he is descended from practically every blue-blooded Parsi of the earlier centuries.
And it was a fascinating story. It fitted very well into this whole episode.
- Part 2: ‘Everything is dependent on Ratan Tata’
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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