The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m delighted a Parsi has taken over this week from Ratan Tata as head of Asia’s greatest corporation. I have strong feelings in this matter but I don’t think they come from prejudice. That would indicate judging without information if not experience and I have plenty of both here.
I went to a Parsi school, the Sir JJ orphanage, in Surat. Thirty-two years ago, there were only four English schools in Surat, then a city of 1.5 million people. Lourdes Convent run by Carmelites, St Xavier’s run by Franciscans, Seventh Day Adventist run by Presbyterians and Sir JJ run by Parsis.
Hindus, 90 per cent of the population and 90 per cent of the student body in all four schools built none, though we’re quite good at building temples. This aspect of Parsis taking the lead and emulating Europeans to improve the lives of others isn’t unusual. If one is observant and looks around, the most civilised things around us are usually not our own contribution. In Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Science, in Mumbai the Tata Memorial Hospital, the National Centre for Performing Arts, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and so on.
The other thing is the single most important and most overlooked fact about Tata Sons: it is owned by charitable trusts. Ratan Tata owns less than one per cent of the firm, and Cyrus Mistry, who is now chairman, is also a minority shareholder. Two-thirds of its stock is held by bodies such as the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Dorabji Tata Trust, which send their profits, thousands of crores of rupees, to charity.
For a firm with sales of $100 billion a year, over half the GDP of Pakistan, to be owned by charities is an astonishing fact unequalled anywhere in the world. Like Carnegie, like Rockefeller, like Gates, like Buffet, the Tatas knew to what end they were creating wealth.
To improve society.
This made them unusual in a nation where the culture is opportunistic. Our wealthy creditgod for their fortune, not society. The Birlas built India’s biggest urban temples and the Ambanis built for themselves the greatest residence in human history. If the creation of wealth has a purpose, as Andrew Carnegie explained it in his writing, Indians haven’t learnt it yet.
It is the Parsi Tatas who showed us that wealth was for the advance of society. That is why he builds institutions of science, medicine and culture.
What makes the Parsi special?
He had early contact with the British, as did all of Surat’s merchants when they settled Bombay in the 17th century. But it was only the Parsi who left his caste ghetto and engaged with European culture.
Parsis were among only two small Indian communities to absorb Classical music. At the Symphony Orchestra of India today, the audience is 90 per cent Parsi, and of the 20 or so musicians of Indian origin (most are Kazakh or European) almost every single one is Catholic. It does not attract Hindus and Muslims.
This music was about harmony, which is a cultural product. This is not unimportant — Bernard Lewis cites the absence of harmony in culture as the reason most of the world has been trounced by tiny Europe. It is no coincidence that the only two civilised parts of India are Parsi South Bombay and Catholic Bandra. Along with high culture, Parsis also gave us much of our popular culture.
Parsis made much money on opium and some still hold that against them (I don’t). But when they came into wealth, they transformed the way they looked at the world around them, unlike the rest of us.
If we ranked Indians by community, I would place Parsis right on top as the finest Indians. It is true that many outstanding Indian managers, Hindu and Muslim, are running Tata Steel, Tata Motors, the Taj hotels, TCS and all the fine firms that make up the Tata group.
But there is a higher purpose to heading Tata Sons than ensuring the smooth production of Land Rovers and Jaguars, the sale of software and steel and bottled water.
This higher purpose is more secure in the hands of a Parsi