Informative, and General Reading
A Post Card that Changed My Life
An Encounter with JRD Tata
by Sudha Murthy
It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was getting warm and
gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the only girl in my
postgraduate department and was staying at the ladies' hostel. Other girls
were pursuing research in different departments of Science.
I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in computer
science. I had been offered scholarships from Universities in the US. I
had not thought of taking up a job in India.
One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I
saw an advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard
job-requirement notice from the famous automobile company Telco (now Tata
Motors). It stated that the company required young, bright
engineers, hardworking and with an excellent academic background, etc.
At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply."
I read it and was very upset. For the first time in my life I was up
against gender discrimination.
Though I was not keen on taking up the job, I saw it as a challenge. I had
done extremely well in academics, better than most of my male peers.
Little did I know then that in real life academic excellence is not enough
to be successful.
After reading the notice I went fuming to my room. I decided to inform the
topmost person in Telco's management about the injustice the company was
perpetrating. I got a postcard and started to write, but there was a
problem: I did not know who headed Telco.
I thought it must be one of the Tatas. I knew JRD Tata was the head of the
Tata Group; I had seen his pictures in newspapers (actually, Sumant
Moolgaokar was the company's chairman then). I took the card, addressed it
to JRD and started writing. To this day I remember clearly what I wrote.
"The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who
started the basic infrastructure industries in India, such as iron and
steel,chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have cared for higher
education in India since 1900 and they were responsible for the
establishment of the Indian Institute of Science. Fortunately, I study
there. But I am surprised how a company such as Telco is discriminating on
the basis of gender."
I posted the letter and forgot about it. Less than 10 days later, I
received a telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at
Telco's Pune facility at the company's expense. I was taken aback by the
telegram. My hostel mate told me I should use the opportunity to go to
Pune free of cost and buy them the famous Pune saris for cheap! I
collected Rs 30 each from everyone who wanted a sari. When I look back, I
feel like laughing at the reasons for my going, but back then they seemed
good enough to make the trip.
It was my first visit to Pune and I immediately fell in love with the
city. To this day it remains dear to me. I feel as much at home in Pune as
I do in Hubli, my hometown. The place changed my life in so many ways. As
directed, I went to Telco's Pimpri office for the interview.
There were six people on the panel and I realised then that this was
"This is the girl who wrote to JRD," I heard somebody whisper as soon as I
entered the room. By then I knew for sure that I would not get the job.
The realisation abolished all fear from my mind, so I was rather cool
while the interview was being conducted.
Even before the interview started, I reckoned the panel was biased, so I
told them, rather impolitely, "I hope this is only a technical interview."
They were taken aback by my rudeness, and even today I am ashamed about my
attitude. The panel asked me technical questions and I answered all of them.
Then an elderly gentleman with an affectionate voice told me, "Do you know
why we said lady candidates need not apply? The reason is that we have
never employed any ladies on the shop floor. This is not a co-ed college;
this is a factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker
throughout. We appreciate that, but people like you should work in
I was a young girl from small-town Hubli. My world had been a limited
place. I did not know the ways of large corporate houses and their
difficulties, so I answered, "But you must start somewhere, otherwise no
woman will ever be able to work in your factories."
Finally, after a long interview, I was told I had been successful. So this
was what the future had in store for me. Never had I thought I would take
up a job in Pune. I met a shy young man from Karnataka there, we became
good friends and we got married.
It was only after joining Telco that I realized who JRD was: the uncrowned
king of Indian industry. Now I was scared, but I did not get to meet him
till I was transferred to Bombay. One day I had to show some reports to Mr
Moolgaokar, our chairman, who we all knew as SM. I was in his office on
the first floor of Bombay House (the Tata headquarters) when, suddenly JRD
walked in. That was the first time I saw "appro JRD". Appro means "our" in
Gujarati. This was the affectionate term by which people at Bombay House
I was feeling very nervous, remembering my postcard episode. SM introduced
me nicely, "Jeh (that's what his close associates called him), this young
woman is an engineer and that too a postgraduate.
She is the first woman to work on the Telco shop floor." JRD looked at me.
I was praying he would not ask me any questions about my interview (or the
postcard that preceded it).
Thankfully, he didn't. Instead, he remarked. "It is nice that girls are
getting into engineering in our country. By the way, what is your name?"
"When I joined Telco I was Sudha Kulkarni, Sir," I replied. "Now I am
Sudha Murthy." He smiled and kindly smile and started a discussion with
SM. As for me, I almost ran out of the room.
After that I used to see JRD on and off. He was the Tata Group chairman
and I was merely an engineer. There was nothing that we had in common. I
was in awe of him.
One day I was waiting for Murthy, my husband, to pick me up after office
hours. To my surprise I saw JRD standing next to me. I did not know how to
react. Yet again I started worrying about that postcard. Looking back, I
realise JRD had forgotten about it. It must have been a small incident for
him, but not so for me.
"Young lady, why are you here?" he asked. "Office time is over." I said,
"Sir, I'm waiting for my husband to come and pick me up." JRD said, "It is
getting dark and there's no one in the corridor.
I'll wait with you till your husband comes." I was quite used to waiting
for Murthy, but having JRD waiting alongside made me extremely
uncomfortable. I was nervous. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at him.
He wore a simple white pant and shirt. He was old, yet his face was
glowing. There wasn't any air of superiority about him. I was thinking,
"Look at this person. He is a chairman, a well-respected man in our
country and he is waiting for the sake of an ordinary employee."
Then I saw Murthy and I rushed out. JRD called and said, "Young lady, tell
your husband never to make his wife wait again."
In 1982 I had to resign
from my job at Telco. I was reluctant to go, but I really did not have a
choice. I was coming down the steps of Bombay House after wrapping up my
final settlement when I saw JRD coming up. He was absorbed in thought. I
wanted to say goodbye to him, so I stopped. He saw me and paused.
Gently, he said, "So what are you doing, Mrs Kulkarni?" (That was the way
he always addressed me.)
"Sir, I am leaving Telco."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Pune, Sir. My husband is starting a company called Infosys and I'm shifting to Pune."
"Oh! And what will you do when you are successful."
"Sir, I don't know whether we will be successful."
"Never start with diffidence," he advised me. "Always start with confidence. When you are successful you must give
back to society. Society gives us so much; we must reciprocate. I wish you all the best."
Then JRD continued walking up the stairs. I stood there for what seemed
like a millennium. That was the last time I saw him alive. Many years
later I met Ratan Tata in the same Bombay House, occupying the chair JRD
once did. I told him of my many sweet memories of working with Telco.
Later, he wrote to me, "It was nice hearing about Jeh from you. The sad
part is that he's not alive to see you today."
I consider JRD a great man because, despite being an extremely busy
person, he valued one postcard written by a young girl seeking justice. He
must have received thousands of letters everyday. He could have thrown
mine away, but he didn't do that. He respected the intentions of that
unknown girl, who had neither influence nor money, and gave her an
opportunity in his company. He did not merely give her a job; he changed
her life and mindset forever.
Close to 50 per cent of the students in today's engineering colleges are
girls. And there are women on the shop floor in many industry segments. I
see these changes and I think of JRD. If at all time stops and asks me
what I want from life, I would say I wish JRD were alive today to see how
the company we started has grown. He would have enjoyed it wholeheartedly.
My love and respect for the House of Tata remains undiminished by the
passage of time. I always looked up to JRD. I saw him as a role model for
his simplicity, his generosity, his kindness and the care he took of his
employees. Those blue eyes always reminded me of the sky; they had the
same vastness and magnificence.
Sudha Murthy is a widely published writer and chairperson of the Infosys
Foundation involved in a number of social development initiatives in India. Infosys
chairman Narayan Murthy is her husband.
Tatagroup is one of the largest companies in India and Infosys is one
of the largest software business in India.
Source: Lasting Legacies (Tata Review- Special Commemorative Issue 2004), published by the house of Tatas to commemorate the 100th
birth anniversary of JRD Tata on July 29, 2004.
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