It is an old building in the heart of Fort – in what used to be at the centre of the commercial hub of the British Empire in India and close to the port and naval installations. For those of us who started our careers in corporate India twenty odd years ago, this was the Mecca of Indian Corporate life. Close to it was the – then – brash and upstart high rises of Nariman Point. Adjacent were the old buildings of Colaba and the Reclamation, standing cheek by jowl with the residential and office complexes of the Maker family.
It used to be said that you can buy anything in Fort – including a set of parents. The old Citibank used to be head-quartered in Fort, next to the Parsi eating house called Mocambo’s – where the Citibank trainee could eat for free up to a princely Rs75 per meal and the rest of us had to scrape it up from our starting salaries for a plate of Dhansak. Even now, it has an air of bustling commerce, of deals being done and of trade being concluded – even as the lifeblood of Indian commerce moves out to new power centres like Bangalore and Gurgaon. Bombay is now Mumbai, and most companies have moved or are moving to Bandra Kurla Complex, or Kalina or Vashi or further beyond. Even the Tatas are no longer the economic powerhouse of Mumbai. The brash Ambani brothers occupy that position now, even as their personal feud takes the headlines in the gossip columns.
I am no longer as spry as I once was, and I would be the first to say that I am more old codger than young lion. However, a very senior member of the Tata management invited me to meet him. When my car stopped outside Bombay House I was surprised to find myself thrilled. Twenty five years ago, I would have been awed and humbled at the prospect of stepping into this hallowed building, to meet a member of the Tata elite, or perhaps spend a few minutes in the company of JRD himself, perhaps as part of the initiation rites of welcoming a new manager to the Tata fold. No such luck then, and nothing of that sort now. It was a business meeting, but it still left me quite honoured.
The entrance to Bombay House now looks like that of any portal to an important building – the ubiquitous metal detectors, the omnipresent security guards who check your belongings, and the clear injunction to get your registered and wait for someone to fetch you by name. Once you are inside, the atmosphere takes a giant step back almost half a century. There are the obvious nods to modernity in the form of doors activated by your visitor pass, the computers and modern telephones strewn around, the trill of the cellphone breaking the silence, and the presence of the odd young executive hurrying to answer a summons.
Other than that, it is an ambience that seems comfortable with the present while basking in the glories of its past. Nothing is flashy or glitzy, and there seems to be an effort to convey an impression of middle-class virtue rather than impress with the immense wealth the group controls. As the gentleman who I met and conversed with for over an hour told me, it is a culture of trusteeship. It is not a place to come and get fabulously wealthy, it is one that puts its trust in people, carefully selected to reflect values as much as possess skills, and leave them to generate wealth for the shareholder.
At the same time, there is an underlying sense that this is not some old cruise liner, this is a warship that can act ruthlessly when needed. I applauded Ratan Tata when he called the awful Mamata Banerjee’s bluff, and moved the Nano plant a thousand miles away. She did not think Tata would leave West Bengal, but the speed and the ruthlessness of his response left her speechless.
I sat in the waiting area, after my meeting was over, and contemplated all this. I felt a lot of affection for the old lady, and was glad that I got an opportunity to visit this landmark and spend some time with one of the very ordinary Indians who became someone notable thanks to the ability of the Tatas to trust and develop people. For a fleeting moment, I felt touched by the same greatness. Then I stepped out of the building and lost myself in the bustle of Bombay.
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