It is a history of the makers of steel. Make that Tata Steel. RM Lala, the official biographer of JRD Tata, Beyond the Last Blue Mountain, may be pushing 80 but he is busy with his latest work, The History of Tata Steel, to be released this year, its centenary year. Clad in his trademark Parsi cap and coat, the frail Lala is having his customary evening cuppa with his wife and friend at the Parsi Gymkhana when we catch up with him. What strikes one at the outset is Lala’s genteel self, his interest in and concern for people, and the deep respect and love for JRD.
The Tatas and Russi Lala’s bonding is stuff of legend. But what really makes him want to go through the whole writing process again? He dismisses his role lightly: “I am just doing one part of the book. I had written it years ago and Muthuraman [MD, Tata Steel] wanted me to complete it. He told me, ‘It will make such easy, elegant reading’.”
Then, he dips into his treasure chest of memories and anecdotes about the Tatas, showing us why his books are the richer for it. “Did you know one of the highest numbers of case studies in management institutes are on Tata Steel? There are 21!,” he smiles. “When I was asked to write on the Tata Group, the Tatas had no archives but they had put a history of the Tatas together, about the companies and so forth, boring facts.” He quickly tells us that he is interested in people, not drab facts. “I think the job of a writer is not to bore the reader with facts. People make for interesting reading and they are characters that readers can connect with. You hear big stories of takeovers. But do you remember them?”
We asked him whether he could be an objective historian of the Tata Group after holding a post of director of Tata’s premier trust, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, and he quips: “Yes. But it is very important to be relaxed while writing. When I was writing ‘Creation of Wealth’, I was the happiest for nobody knew what I was doing. When the book came out, it had a huge impact for it was a book on the biggest industrial house in the country.”
Lala will always be remembered, and envied too, perhaps, for having had access to JRD Tata. So, what can generation next learn from the life of JRD? “People need a role model and JRD was a wonderful and great person to be with. He never took himself seriously and his humility was a big asset. He was a great democrat.”
Everyone knows about JRD’s success stories. We asked him if JRD felt diffident about anything. “Well, I don’t think he got over the fact that he never went to college. He was such a refined man with inborn gentlemanliness. When I told him this, he remarked, ‘Had I been to Cambridge and been a doctor of engineering, I would have known so much more. I know so little’.”