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When J.R.D. Tata fixed toilet rolls of his Air India flight

In an excerpt from ‘Tata Stories’, Harish Bhat writes about the man who founded the airline in 1930s and was never satisfied with being ‘the second best’

An undated photo of J.R.D. Tata walking out of an Air India flight. (ANI)
An undated photo of J.R.D. Tata walking out of an Air India flight. (ANI) (HT_PRINT)

J.R.D. Tata, who served as chairman of the Tata Group for over five decades, was a stickler for excellence and perfection. Here are three simple and memorable stories which can inspire us to excellence in our own lives. J.R.D. Tata would often fly Air India, the airline that he had founded in the 1930s. Meher Heroyce Moos, who joined Air India as an air hostess way back in 1965, has written a warm tribute about how J.R.D. would ‘walk the length of the aircraft, checking out the galleys, the equipment used, the furnishings, whether the curtain had frayed, or whether dust was found on the lower edges, the crew’s interaction with the passengers and above all the quality of the meal services’. Once, on an Air India flight, J.R.D. was travelling with L.K. Jha, one of the senior-most bureaucrats in the Indian government. Suddenly, J.R.D. went missing from his seat for a long time, nearly an hour. L.K. Jha was naturally concerned, and, when J.R.D. returned, he asked him where he had gone. 

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J.R.D. replied that he had wanted to see if the toilets on the aircraft were clean and all arrangements were as per specifications. But Jha was still not convinced because just a mere inspection of a few toilets would not take an hour. So he persisted with his query. J.R.D. eventually responded: ‘The toilet rolls had not been placed properly.’ Jha was amazed at what had actually transpired. J.R.D. Tata, chairman of the airline, had gone to each toilet on the aircraft to ensure that the toilet rolls had been placed as they should have been. He had then personally corrected any wrong placements. This singular attention to the smallest detail undoubtedly had its impact on every member of the team and made Air India one of the finest airlines in the world. 

The book is written by Harish Bhat
The book is written by Harish Bhat (Courtesy Tata)

Yet another vignette is narrated by Jitender Bhargava, who had joined Air India in 1989 as head of public relations. On 15 October 1992, he was waiting at the Oberoi Hotel to receive J.R.D. Tata for a party to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Air India. The party was due to start at 9.30 p.m., and as Bhargava began escorting J.R.D. from the entrance of the hotel to the poolside, which was the venue of the event, J.R.D. told him: ‘Sorry young man, I am late.’ Bhargava expectedly said, ‘No, sir.’ J.R.D. Tata immediately pulled up his coat sleeve and showed Bhargava his wristwatch. It showed 9.33 p.m., a delay of three minutes. The delay may have been small, but J.R.D. nonetheless felt the need to apologize for not being perfectly on time. The third story is narrated superbly by J.R.D. Tata’s biographer, R.M. Lala. Once, a young economist working with the Tata Group, D.R. Pendse, was invited to speak at an international conference in London in 1979. J.R.D. Tata heard of this invitation, called Pendse to his office, and asked for the text of his speech. 


Pendse responded to J.R.D. that he normally spoke extempore. J.R.D. exclaimed, ‘You mean you will address an international audience of 500 people without an address in your pocket. Have you rehearsed your speech?’ Pendse admitted that he had not rehearsed his speech either, but was proposing to do it in the London hotel the day before the event. J.R.D. was not happy with this proposal, and immediately told him, ‘Your audience will hear you, but have you heard yourself? Keep a tape recorder in front of you every time you rehearse at home and play it back. Then you will know how the audience is going to hear you.’ J.R.D. also advised the young Pendse that although he may know the topic of the speech—economics—very well, he should nonetheless prepare rigorously and talk slowly. Then, because Pendse did not own a tape recorder, J.R.D. picked up his own and lent it to him. ‘Take this. Write your speech. Rehearse at home. Listen. Then you can return it to me. I will find another recorder for the meantime. Don’t worry, and good luck to you.’ Pendse promptly changed tack, as advised by his chairman, and practised his speech. 

He then delivered a brilliant address at the London conference, which was met with a standing ovation. Pendse tells R.M. Lala: ‘It was beyond my expectations. And as I sat down acknowledging it [the applause], I could almost feel the chairman smiling at me.’ D.R. Pendse later went on to become the economic adviser to the Tata Group. What was remarkable is that J.R.D. Tata, chairman of a large industrial group, found the time and energy to speak to his young economist and advise him on the rigour and discipline required regarding excellent preparation for a speech. J.R.D. followed this practice in his own life too. He wrote his own speeches, often correcting them several times in his handwriting until they met his high standards of excellence. 

It was not unusual for his speeches to have four or five interim drafts, and he would often refuse an invitation to speak unless he had adequate time to prepare very well. All these stories are rooted in one of the key guiding principles of J.R.D. Tata’s life. In his own words: ‘. . . one must forever strive for excellence, or even perfection, in any task however small, and never be satisfied with the second best.’ Do we follow this simple but powerful principle in our own lives? Success would be a natural outcome when we pursue such excellence, and we would also feel far more fulfilled in every endeavour that we undertake. 

Excerpted from #Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You with permission from Penguin Random House. 

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