How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and other Stories, p.4Sudha Murty
‘But why do you have their photos in your office?’
‘You can call it gratitude.’
Then, invariably, I have to tell the person the following story. It happened a long time ago. I was young and bright, bold and idealistic. I was studying in the final year for my Master’s degree in computer science at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, which was then known as the Tata Institute. For me, life was full of fun and joy. I did not know what helplessness or injustice meant.
It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was just becoming warm. Red Gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the only girl in my postgraduate department in Engineering, and was staying in the ladies’ hostel. Other girls were pursuing their research in different departments of science.
After completing my postgraduation, I was keen to go abroad to do my doctorate in computer science and had already been offered scholarships from universities in USA. I had not thought of taking up a job in India.
One day, while on the way to my hostel from the lecture hall, I saw an advertisement on the noticeboard.
It was a standard job-requirement notice from the famous automobile company TELCO. It stated that the company required young, bright engineers, hard-working with excellent academic background, etc.
At the bottom there was a small line: ‘Lady candidates need not apply’.
I read it and was very upset. For the first time, I was faced with gender discrimination.
Though I was not keen on taking up a job, I took it as a challenge and decided to apply. I had done extremely well in my studies, probably better than most of the boys. Little did I know then that in real life, to be successful, academic excellence is not a necessary condition.
After reading the notice, I went fuming to my room. There I decided not only to apply for the job, but also to inform the topmost person of the management of TELCO about the injustice. I got a postcard and started to write. But there was a problem. Who was the head of TELCO? I did not know. I was so ignorant that 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 Mulgoankar was then its chairman, which I was not aware of.
I took the postcard and started writing. Even now, I clearly remember what I had written to JRD.
‘Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the basic infrastructure industries in India like iron and steel, chemicals, textiles, locomotives, etc. They have cared for higher education in India since 1900, and are responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science! Fortunately I study there. But I am surprised that in such a company you can make a distinction between men and women.’
I posted the letter that was written in anger, and after a few days forgot about it.
Within ten days, I received a telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at TELCO Pune, at their expense. I was taken aback. But my hostel-mates told me I had to use the opportunity to go to Pune free of cost. And the reason? Pune saris were cheap! I was told to buy saris for them. I even collected thirty rupees per head for each of their saris. Now, when I look back, I feel like laughing at the reasons, but then they seemed good ones to make a trip.
This was my first visit to Pune. I fell in love with the city and even to this date it is very dear to my heart. I feel as much at home in Pune as I do at Hubli. The city 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 it was only then that I realized this was serious business.
‘This is the girl who wrote to JRD,’ I heard them whisper to each other as soon as I entered. By then I knew for sure that I would not get a job. And when I wouldn’t get a job, why should I be scared? So I was rather cool for the interview.
Even before they started the interview I knew they were biased, so I told them, rather rudely, ‘I hope this is only a technical interview.’
They were taken aback by my rudeness, and even today I am ashamed of my attitude.
During the interview they asked many technical questions and I answered all of them. Then one elderly gentleman with an affectionate voice told me, ‘Do you know why we said that lady candidates need not apply? The reason is that to this day we have not employed any ladies on the shop floor of the factory. This is an automobile industry. Trainees may have to work in shifts. For training, we may have to send them to Jamshedpur in Bihar. All our plants have men and machinery. Our trainees may have to drive. We have a trainee’s hostel and a guest house for them. If a lady enters, then how can we accommodate her? We do not know how men on the shop floor will accept her. How will she come for shifts? We care for our employees, particularly if she is a lady. It is not a college where there is no gender difference. This is a factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker throughout. We appreciate that. People like you should work more in research laboratories.’
I was a young girl from small-town Hubli. My world was very small. I did not know the ways of large corporate houses and their difficulties. So I answered, ‘But somewhere you must start. Otherwise a lady will never be able to work in the factories. You are pioneers in many aspects of life. When I look at your industries, you are far ahead of other people. If you think this way, then how will any lady ever enter this so-called man’s domain?’
‘Training a candidate costs a lot to our company. You are of a marriageable age. After your training you will leave this company and shift to wherever your husband works. Is it not a waste of money for us?’
I thought for a moment and replied, ‘I definitely agree with what you say. I am sure when many of you married, your wives came along with you. That has been our tradition. But is it also not true that many men undergo training, and just for a few more hundred rupees, they shift their jobs. You don’t have any rule for them. You can’t stop them.’
Finally, after a long interview, I was told I had been successful in securing a job at TELCO. On the way back, I got down at Hubli, my home town. I was eager to meet my father, always my best friend, and tell him my adventure. I was sure he would be happy and praise me.
But I was in for a shock. He was very upset. He said, ‘You should have basic manners when addressing elderly people like JRD Tata. You should have written the letter more politely and put it in an envelope, instead of sending a postcard. Now you have to take up this job because you are morally responsible.’
That is what my future had in store for me. Never ever had I thought I would take up a job at Pune. There I met a shy young man from Karnataka, we became good friends and got married.
The elderly gentleman who interviewed me was Dr Sathya Murty, who was an excellent technocrat and human being. I worked with him for some years. After joining TELCO, I realized who JRD was. He was the uncrowned king of Indian industry. I did not get to meet him until I was transferred to Bombay. JRD had an office at Bombay House, the headquarters of Tata Industries.
One day, I was supposed to show some reports to our chairman Mr Mulgoankar, whom everyone always referred to as SM. So I went to his office on the first floor of Bombay House.
While I was in SM’s room, JRD walked in. That was the first time I saw ‘Appro JRD’. ‘Appro’ means ‘ours’ in Gujarati. In Bombay House, people used to affectionately call him ‘Appro JRD’.
By this time, I knew who he was and was feeling very nervous, remembering my rude postcard to him.
SM introduced me very nicely, ‘Jeh look, this young girl is an engineer and that too a postgraduate. She has worked on the shopfloor at TELCO. Is it not unusual? She was the first girl in our TELCO shopfloor.’
JRD looked at me. I was praying he would not ask me any questions regarding my interview or the postcard. Thankfully he didn’t ask me anything about that. Instead he remarked, ‘It is nice that in our country girls are getting into engineering. By the way, what is your name?’
‘When I joined TELCO, I was Sudha Kulkarni, Sir
‘Where do you work?’
‘At Nanavati Mahalaya,’ I replied.
He smiled at me nodding his head and the two men started their discussion. I just ran out of the room.
After that I used to see JRD on and off. He was the chairman of a large group of companies and I was only an engineer in one of those companies. There was nothing we had in common. I used to look at him with awe.
One day I was waiting for Murthy to come and pick me up after office hours. To my surprise, I saw JRD standing next to me. I did not know how to react. I was feeling uneasy. Again I started worrying about the postcard. Now when I look back, I realize JRD must have forgotten about it. It must have been a very small incident to him but not so for me.
He asked me, ‘Young lady, why are you here? Office time is over.’ I said, ‘Sir, I am waiting for my husband to come and pick me up’.
JRD said, ‘It is getting dark. There’s no one in the corridor. I will wait with you until your husband comes.’
I was quite used to waiting for Murthy so I was not bothered much by having to wait in the dark. But having JRD waiting along with me made me very uncomfortable. 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, without any air of superiority.
I was thinking, ‘Look at this person. He is the chairman, a well-respected man in our country and he is waiting for the sake of an ordinary lady employee.’
As soon as I saw Murthy, I rushed out.
JRD called and said, ‘Young lady, tell your husband never to be late and make his wife wait.’
In 1982, I had to resign from my job at TELCO. I was very reluctant to resign but did not have a choice. Even now, my love and respect for the House of Tatas is the same. I always looked up to JRD as my role model for his simplicity, generosity, kindness and the care he took of his employees.
After I had made my final settlements with the company, I was coming down the steps of Bombay House when I saw JRD coming up. He was absorbed in some thought. I wanted to say goodbye to him. So I stopped. He saw me and he also stopped.
Gently he said, ‘So what are you doing Ms Kulkarni?’ (That was the way he always addressed me.)
‘Sir I am leaving TELCO.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Pune, Sir. My husband is starting a company called Infosys. So I have to shift to Pune.’
‘Oh! What will you do when you are successful?’
‘Sir I do not know whether we will be successful or not.’
‘Never start with diffidence. Always start with confidence. When you are successful, you must give back to society. Society gives us so much, we must return it. I wish you all the best.’
Then JRD continued walking up the stairs. I stood for a while, watching him. That was the last time I saw him alive.
Many years later, I met Ratan Tata in the same Bombay office occupying the same chair as JRD. I told him many of my sweet memories of working with TELCO. I said, ‘I cannot call you Mr Tata like Murthy calls you. You are occupying “Appro JRD’s” seat. You will always be “Chairman Sir” to me.’
Later, he wrote to me, ‘It was nice listening about Jeh from you. The sad part is that he is not alive today to see you.’
I consider JRD a great man because, in spite of being an extremely busy person, he valued one postcard written by a young girl, who was asking for justice and questioning him. He must have received thousands of letters everyday. He could have thrown mine away in a dustbin. 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 to work in his company. He did not merely give her a job, but also changed her life and mindset forever.
Today, in any engineering college I see that forty to fifty per cent of the students are girls. On the shop floor of many mechanical industries we see so many ladies working. That time I think of JRD fondly.
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.
Heart of Gold
This is a true story. I heard it on the radio during one of my visits to the US. It happened in one of the biggest cities in the world, New York.
It was winter. One evening, a worried mother stood shivering by the road, wearing an old coat. With her was a little girl, thin, sick-looking with a shaven head. She was wearing an oversized dress which somebody had probably given to her out of mercy. It was apparent that they were homeless and poor. The child had a cardboard placard in her hand which said, ‘I am suffering from cancer. Please help me.’
The mother was carrying a begging bowl. Whenever the traffic lights turned red they would approach people, stopping them on the road and asking for help.
America is a rich country, but if you are sick and don’t have insurance, then you are lost. Nobody can support you. People give small amounts of money when they see such pleas for help. This kind of a scene is not uncommon in India. We see lots of beggars with small infants in one hand and a begging bowl in another. But in America it is not so common. People felt bad for this unfortunate mother and child.
One day, a policeman was passing by and saw them. He asked them a few questions and noticed that the child indeed looked very sick, with her swollen eyes and shaven head. He wanted to help, so he opened his purse. He saw a bundle of notes which he had just drawn from the bank. He had received a good bonus for the excellent work he had done. He thought, ‘I have a warm home, a caring wife and a loving son. God has been very kind to me. But these unfortunate people don’t have any of these things. It is not their mistake that God has not been kind to them.’ He remembered the many things he had promised his wife and son he would buy when he got his bonus. For a while he was in two minds. Then he decided and gave all the cash which he had drawn from the bank to the woman and said, ‘Please take good care of the child.’
When he reached home, his son met him at the doorstep as usual and hugged him. The house was warm and nice. He sat in front of his wife, and looking at the snow falling outside, he narrated the whole incident. After listening to him for a while his wife was silent, then she smiled. But the son was angry. He said, ‘Dad, how are you sure that they have not cheated you? And even though you wanted to give some money you could have given some portion. Why did you give everything?’
The policeman laughed at his son and said, ‘Son, you do not know what poverty is. I come across such unfortunate people in my work.’
The days passed and everybody forgot about it.
One day a news item in the paper caught the son’s attention: ‘Mother and child caught cheating.’ With great interest he read:
‘A greedy mother used her healthy child to pose as a cancer patient. She shaved the child’s head, starved her and dressed her shabbily so that anybody would feel the child was suffering from cancer. Using this tactic she duped many people. The mother has been arrested.’
The son realized who these people were and was very upset. When his father came home, he told him as soon as he entered the house, ‘Dad, you were cheated by that lady and her child who you thought was a cancer patient. The child is healthy and you gave away your entire bonus to that child.’
His father did not reply. He sat down, and looked out of the window. There were children playing outside. Winter was over and summer was setting in. In a calm voice he said, ‘Son, I am very happy. The child is healthy.’
The boy was surprised. He thought being a policeman, his father would pick up the phone and talk to the police station or he would be depressed that he had been cheated and had given away so much of money to a healthy child. But there were no traces of such emotions.
He asked, ‘Dad, tell me, are you not upset?’
His father again gave him the same answer, ‘I am happy that the child is healthy.’
By that time his wife
A Wedding in Russia
A wedding is a great event in everyone’s life. In India, it is done with a great deal of ceremony. In our films, a large number of stories are based on weddings.
If you look at Indian history, you will see many wars have been fought for the sake of a marriage. People have always spent a lot of money and effort on these. In the olden days, the wedding celebrations used to carry on for a week. Later it came down to three days, then two days and now it is for a day. The amount of money spent sometimes constitutes the entire life’s savings of a person. At times, people take such huge loans for this celebration that they have to go on repaying throughout their lives. In my experience, whenever I have talked to bonded labourers, I have found that a majority of them have got into that state because of the wedding expenses they had incurred.
In a marriage, the couple and their parents are worried about various things. Is she looking pretty? Are the guests being looked after? Will he keep her happy? People like you and me are worried about the wedding lunch. It is an occasion where young boys get to meet young girls, old people talk about their ailments and women exhibit their finest jewellery and silk saris.
Recently I was in Moscow, Russia. Moscow City has many war memorials. Russia has won three great wars in its history, which is a source of pride for them. They have built war memorials and erected many statues of the generals who were responsible for the victories. The first war was between Peter the Great and Sweden. The second was between Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon of France. The third one was against Hitler in World War II in 1945.
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