Karachi to Bombay to Calcutta

The struggle to start Air-India.

Tata (circa 1960) wrote copious memos to his staff about everything from inflight coffee (“it tasted like bean soup”) to crew hairstyles (one stewardess “had an enormous hair bun at the back, larger than her whole head. She looked ridiculous”). (Tata Central Archives)
Air & Space Magazine

Like many things in India, civil aviation was subservient to the monsoon. Since the rains, which begin mid-June, have typically abated by early September, the subcontinent’s first regularly scheduled airmail service was to have been inaugurated on September 15, 1932. But that year, the rain and lashing wind persisted, making the Juhu airfield, Bombay’s first airport, a quagmire. In those days, the field was little more than a dried mud flat on the Indian Ocean coast, north of what was then the city center, and in what is now the hub of India’s famous film industry, Bollywood. It took another month before the airfield dried out enough to permit the first flight of the new service, a venture that would grow into Air-India, the national carrier.

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That it started at all was due to the persistence and vision of a tycoon and adventurer named J.R.D. Tata. In 1932, the 28-year-old industrialist cut a dashing figure. With his tidy mustache, trim frame, and pomaded hair, he looked like Errol Flynn. Finally, in October, after three years of lobbying the British colonial government, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, known to millions of Indians today as J.R.D., boarded a second-hand Puss Moth at Drigh Road airport in Karachi (in what is now Pakistan) for the flight to Bombay. Equipped with only a pair of goggles and the slide rule he used for navigating, J.R.D. took off with 120 pounds of mail. He stopped as planned in Ahmedabad, the halfway point in the 600-mile journey. “I was fuelled by Burmah Shell out of 2 gallon tins brought to the airfield in a bullock-cart,” J.R.D. remembered, according to materials in the Tata archives. “My only thought was to be on my way as quickly as possible so as to reach Juhu on schedule…and I managed to take off after 20 minutes in Ahmedabad after a lemonade and a brief talk to the press.”

The flight to Bombay (today, Mumbai) was “bumpy and hot” but otherwise uneventful, except for what an internal Tata Group review of the founding of the airline describes as the “killing of a bird which flew into the cabin of his machine.”

LAST YEAR, I visited Air-India Tower, the company’s headquarters in South Mumbai, and was surprised to see that J.R.D. Tata, who died in 1993, retains a large presence in the company. His picture adorns the walls of many offices, his office furniture is still in use (and treated like sacred relics), the screen savers on most computers scroll inspirational Tata quotations, and a bust of the man guards the building’s main doors. Kamaljeet Rattan, the airline’s spokesman, told me that when VIPs or high-ranking government employees call, their visits always begin with a ceremony during which the statue is given a flower garland, a tilak (a daub of sandalwood symbolizing the third, or mind’s, eye) is applied to his forehead, and Hindi devotional songs are sung. (Never mind that Tata wasn’t himself a Hindu.)

Employees who remember working with J.R.D. describe him as a saintly presence, in whom the staff was in awe. They recall him speaking quickly but quietly, with a slight French accent, and being prone to philosophical asides. They recount feeling sadness when Prime Minister Morarji Desai unceremoniously sacked him in 1978, without providing a reason.

Longtime Air-India executive Surendra Gupte told me he thought of J.R.D. “like a god.” He wasn’t kidding; under the glass on his desk were three pictures: two of the Indian god of knowledge, Ganesh, the other of J.R.D. Tata. Gupte remembers J.R.D. as a man who, while boarding an Air-India flight, refused to jump the queue; someone not afraid to take a meeting at his house in his pajamas or get under the hood of a troublesome automobile or put a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a young executive—things that would be anathema to the typical status- and class-obsessed Indian tycoon.

He wasn’t a pushover, though, according to Captain D. Bose, an Air-India pilot who served as the airline’s managing director from 1984 to 1987 and now chairs the J.R.D. Tata Trust. Bose says Tata “suffered no fools,” and would not hesitate to cut down an employee with a caustic remark for saying something J.R.D. disagreed with.

“He took a minute interest in the airline,” said Bose. “When he was on a flight, he would walk up and down the plane with his notebook and later write me letters outlining his suggestions. I remember once he asked me to research when we should serve the cheese course in first class. He wasn’t sure what to do because he said the French served it after dessert, but the Italians served it in between dinner and dessert.”

“His main characteristic was humility,” said Gupte. “And he led by example. Even after he was sacked, he held no grudge at all. His burning desire was that the airline would thrive and retain its past glory. The most amazing thing about him was his love for the airline. It was his baby.”

J.R.D. WAS THE SON of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (R.D.), who was a relation of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the so-called House of Tata. Jamsetji was a Parsi, one of some 110,000 Indian Zoroastrians, whose ancestors fled Persia and settled in Gujarat (now a state in western India) more than 1,000 years ago. Jamsetji made his fortune in textiles and weaving, but soon branched out. In the generations before J.R.D. ascended to the chairmanship of the Tata Group, the company established India’s first iron and steel companies, a hydroelectric power company, and the Indian Institute of Science.

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