A man in full

These excerpts from Frank Harris's biography of Jamsetji Tata show the colourful mosaic of a life lived with ceaseless passion


Had Mr Jamsetji Tata lived in Europe or America his name would have been more familiar to the public. In England his philanthropic schemes would have brought him temporal honours, but he remained one of those commoners who give a singular dignity to the simple prefix which is the right of every male citizen within the Empire. There was, at one time, a suggestion that some title might come his way. Certain of his contemporaries, by giving largely to charity, and by creating a trust, had obtained recognition, but those who thought that Mr Tata was prepared to purchase a conditional honour by way of the Institute of Science merely roused the old man's scorn and indignation. He died, as he lived, a citizen of Bombay…

Mr Tata played a considerable part in the life of the city, to whose amenities he contributed his full share. "He had a great love for beautiful Bombay," says one of his English friends, "and a great pride in its progress… His new hotel also was a great satisfaction to him, for he intended it to be one of the best according to the highest European standard."

As he drove through the town, or walked from Esplanade House to Victoria Buildings, Mr Tata, with his kindly face and snow-white beard, was a familiar and picturesque figure. As a rule, he wore a simple white costume and, on his head, the Parsee turban, or the small skullcap, which orthodoxy forbade him to lay aside. To those who saw him in the streets, the only sign of wealth displayed was in the perfect appointment of his carriage, for he took great pride in his horses and their equipment.

At sixty years of age he was one of the most prominent men in India, and had shown to the world the stuff of which he was made. By sheer force of character he had converted his modest capital into considerable wealth, and could be reckoned among the richer Indians of his day. He possessed all the qualities which make for success; he was honest, cautious, and resolute, and could bring courage and imagination to bear upon his schemes. His varied interests may tend to obscure the real stature of the man, but a master mind moved behind these apparent diversions, and his greater achievements were representative of India's rapid advance in industry. He was, however, so far ahead of his times, that his countrymen could not always keep pace with his broader ideas nor comprehend their drift.

"There was," says Mr Lovat Fraser, "hardly any other man among its millions who may more fitly be said to have united within himself the qualities of which the Indian people stand so greatly in need." Mr Tata began his career in a practical way, until he took, at length, a leading position in the cotton trade. When he attained this coign of vantage he turned his imagination and his organising powers to fostering spacious schemes for the educational and industrial development of his country. Though he reaped rewards, he never became a mere money-maker, but stood before his fellows as a truly noble man, who commanded the respect and esteem of everyone with whom he came into contact.

So successful had been his career that it is well to recall the difficulties which he had overcome. At the outset of his business life he and his father were involved in Mr Premchand Roychand's failure, and were compelled to sell their house and property in order to discharge their debts. The Empress Mills involved much hard work and anxiety; the Swadeshi Mills at first swallowed part of their founder's hard-earned fortune, and forced him to greater exertion at a time when his state of health was such that a well-earned rest might have prolonged his life. These difficulties only served to develop his character, and to exhibit his determination, his energy, and his integrity.

Success had not, however, hardened his heart. Business played its duly proportioned part in his life, but did not stifle his generous feelings. To the last, while somewhat reticent, he remained sensitive, sympathetic, and sincere. His friend, Sir Dinshaw Wacha, recalls that, in the years of endeavour, Mr Tata's delicate nature was frequently wounded by the pinpricks of diurnal worries. Another friend, Sir Lawrence Jenkins, Chief Justice of Bombay, once told an audience that when speaking of the hardships of the poor, Mr Tata's eyes were filled with tears. "I have spoken of Mr Tata's sympathy," said Sir Lawrence, "and in this I use no empty phrase; for it was with him a living force."

His sympathy with the deserving poor made of him a liberal subscriber to all recognised causes, irrespective of race, politics, or creed. When the Salvation Army needed assistance, they came to Mr Tata and received both material aid and moral support. He was always prepared to spend money for the public good. One of his greater efforts for the welfare of the community was his attempt to arrest the bubonic plague. He did, indeed, all that a private citizen could do to combat this misfortune. For three consecutive years (1896-9) Bombay was visited by this terrible scourge. In 1898 the death-roll of the city exceeded 18,000, and of those attacked by the disease no less than 91 per cent succumbed. In the previous year a young Russian doctor, Professor Haffkine, had introduced his system of inoculation, but concealment and mistrust had rendered its effects inoperative. Stories were spread abroad of cases in which leprosy and smallpox had been propagated by the serum. Many doctors, both English and Indian, were jealous of Haffkine. Mr Tata, however, who at once recognised the value of the new cure, became one of the Professor's warmest supporters.

Mr Tata's social life was spent mainly at the Elphinstone Club, where he often entertained some well-known traveller to talk over the world's affairs, and at the Sunday dinner he chatted about the doings of the community with his fellow-Parsees. Though deeply attached to his favourite haunts, he was ready to give a portion of his time to the social interests of younger men. A firm believer in the benefit of athletics, he took a prominent part in the establishment of the Parsee Gymkhana. He frequently attended the committee meetings, and to the end of his life was by far the largest contributor to its funds, though it was his elder son who had to ask him for the money. Mr Tata was an original member of the Excelsior, the Elphinstone, the Rippon, and the Parsee Gymkhana…

Speeches and banquets had little fascination for Mr Tata. For one so interested in politics, he exercised the greatest self-restraint in putting forward his views to the public, but no gathering was considered to be really representative unless he gave it his support. He never addressed a political meeting, though once or twice he consented to second a resolution, but a few words were made to suffice his audience. In the biography of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, who played a leading part in the initiation of the Indian National Congress, Mr Tata's name occurs but twice, and then not in that connection; yet in after years, at the unveiling of the Tata memorial, his friend pointed out that from the first Mr Tata supported the Congress, and remained a member of that body to the end of his life.

He gave freely both of his time and money to the Bombay Presidency Association, which provided the local machinery for Congress. "The current notion," said Sir Pherozeshah, "that Mr Tata took no part in public life, and did not help and assist in political movements, was a great mistake. There was no man who held stronger notions on political matters, and though he could never be induced to appear and speak on a public platform, the help, the advice, and the cooperation which he gave to political movements never ceased except with his life. And the proof of this statement lay in the fact that Mr Tata was one of the foundation members of what might be called the leading political association in the Presidency: the Bombay Presidency Association."

There are many men who take a profound interest in politics, but leave the dust of the arena to those who desire applause. Such a man was Mr Tata. "It is by solid work such as your father did," wrote a friend to Sir Dorab Tata, Mr Tata's son, "that India will be brought up to a higher standard of comfort and civilisation, and as that higher standard develops so will the capacity for self-restraint and self-government increase. I therefore look upon your father and the group of men who are following in his footsteps, not merely from the commercial standpoint, but as political pioneers of the most reliable character."

Mr Tata held strong views, and when, on one occasion, a friend thoughtlessly said to him, "You can have no concern with the Congress; you are not a native of India," Mr Tata replied sharply, "If I am not a native of India, what am I?" For he was an Indian first, and a Parsee afterwards. He was in the fullest sympathy with the aims of Congress, as he knew it, when it was working for self-government by constitutional means. In 1883, he was present at its birth. During the first years of its existence, the annual meetings were not marked by those stormy scenes which began in the twentieth century. Though a warm supporter of Congress, Mr Tata preferred not to take an active part in its affairs. He had neither the time nor the inclination for political strife…

Any measure which tended to disturb India's economic stability would soon call forth a protest from Mr Tata. He had an excellent head for figures, and was a sound authority upon currency problems, or the fluctuations of the exchange, and the manipulation of the bank-rate. Apart from such subjects, which appealed to his love for statistics, he devoted his political and social work to the general welfare of the Indian people. In later life, under the influence of Dr Row, he took a keen interest in the furtherance of medical science. To the Salvation Army he gave substantial help towards their work for the reformation and reinstatement of prisoners, especially of women, whom they rescued from a life of degradation, and put to work at various trades. Mr Tata's unseen charities were numerous, for he was always touched by the woes of the downtrodden, whose lot he desired to improve by the eradication of social evils.

To education he looked for the moral and material regeneration of India, and did everything to encourage its advance in all directions. His faith in India's future was coupled with a desire for her political progress. He had great ideals of the scope and duties of government, of whose shortcomings he was by no means a silent critic. Steeped as he was in philosophic radicalism, Mr Tata welcomed every reform, and he would seethe with indignation at what he deemed an injustice. He condemned the sycophants who concealed those grievances which galled his countrymen, but he had little sympathy with malcontents who had no practical policy to put forward for the betterment of the country. He was, himself, a practical reformer, sociologist and philanthropist. "He never made himself prominent as a politician," says Mr O'Conor, "leaving public affairs and speech-making to others; but he held strong views, and was intensely patriotic."

Mr Tata did not turn a blind eye to the defects and difficulties of British rule, but he was free from any bias against British culture. Many of his strongest friendships were with officials, especially those with Liberal leanings. "As for my antipathy to everything English," he wrote in a letter, "it will reassure you to know that it is a myth." From time to time he was apt, in industrial matters, to extol America or Germany, or Japan, for he forgot that England was like an old-established firm, content to rest upon the laurels already gained. It was said of him that "he united the daring courage of the American captain of industry with the German passion for details; and it is probable that he caught, during his many visits to that country, something of the spirit which has made modern Japan great among the powers".

Political, social, or legal discrimination between the Englishman and the Indian were to him particularly distasteful, and he felt it still more keenly when discrimination was extended to business matters. While a well-reasoned loyalty to British rule was part of Mr Tata's political faith, he wished England to point the way to freedom, and to carry out the finest traditions of the Liberal creed. His political views were those of the more advanced Liberals in England. Though his participation in politics was confined to regular attendance at the Congress, he was deeply interested in the trend of "affairs at home and abroad". He was one of the first to recognise the advent of Japan as a great power, and in his dying days he prophesied her victory over Russia. Before the term swadeshi became a political cry, Mr Tata had adopted the name for one of his mills. In a sense, he wanted "India for the Indians", but his patriotism was, as one of his friends has rightly said, a form of patriotism which was in the best interests of India and of the English connection.

Mr Tata, as a rule, kept open house. He was always prepared to lend his place for a reception, and would foot the bill, though his name rarely appeared upon the invitations. He preferred to leave the entertaining to his sons. His hospitality was as catholic as his charities.

This article is extracted from Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata: A Chronicle of his Life by Frank Harris. The book was first published in 1925.