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This article was first published 11 years ago

Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Last updated on: February 27, 2013 19:45 IST

Image: Ratan Tata at a Tata Motors annual general meeting.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

Two months after he retired, Ratan Tata remains a personal enigma despite the millions of words written about him.

In this exclusive interview with's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, architect Ratan Batliboi reveals Ratan Tata the caring, honest, funny, simple, man behind the legend.

Ratan Batliboi is a well-known architect who runs the Mumbai-based Ratan J Batliboi Consultants Private Ltd, one of India's top architectural firms (the Bandra-Worli Sea link, beautification of Marine Drive).

Batliboi got to know Ratan Tata really well when he helped design Tata's post-retirement home in Colaba, south Mumbai.

As he spent more and more time with Tata, who retired as chairman of the Tata group on December 28, Batliboi was bowled over by his charm, humility and honesty.

How did you first come in contact with Mr Tata?

We were doing the brand identity for the Tata group many years ago. We worked with a group called Wolff Ollins (a brand consultancy based in London, New York City and Dubai), who were the guys who actually created the mark (the Tata logo).

We were the local counterparts. So as the design office we were responsible for seeing that mark got into the mainstream and got applied.

We met with (Ratan Tata) because we were sort of designing the applications of the mark. This was about 1998 or 1999.

Before that there had just been (for me a general awareness of) the Tata group.

JRD (Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, the legendary chairman of the Tata group) used to stay up the road from where I lived. I would hitch a ride with JRD in his Mercedes.

I didn't know who he was till my dad one day saw me hitching a ride and said, "Ratan, hello, it doesn't work like this!"

(JRD) probably saw me many times before he finally stopped the car and said: "Who are you?" I said "I am Ratan." And he said: "I am Jeh."

As a bawa (an affectionate Mumbai term for Parsis) growing up -- Tata is Tata.

One knew that Ratan Tata was (now) in the saddle. One knew that he had a rough time settling into the shoes of The JRD. It was about eight or nine years of spiking and unpleasant peaking before he took charge of consolidating the group.

And that was also a tricky decision because when you are telling a Rs 10,000 crore company, at that time, that you are part of a Rs 30,000 crore conglomerate, the Rs 10,000 crore guy feels he is a big part.

Whereas Ratan Tata treated everybody as an equivalent part. It was an interesting time. We were designing the Telco showrooms. He wanted to see what was going on. He (Ratan Tata) is an architect, a qualified trained architect. He has practiced a bit. So he is very clear about what he does.

And he is a designer at heart. He is an instinctive designer.

My first interaction with him was at that time. We were trying to meet him since June and I think we met him sometime in November.

He came into the meeting and said, "Sorry, I am late." So I said, "Late from June? Or late by ten minutes?"

That's when he started showing his beautiful personality and his wit. It was lovely.

Then we went on to design his ( visiting) card and his letterhead. Everything that all his guys (advisors/assistants), around him, would say -- 'Mr Tata will never sign on this side and will always expect it's a square (the letter paper) and never have the mark (logo) on this side...

It was so easy because we said, "Mr Tata, this is how we designed it for the rest of the group. How would you like yours?"

And he said: "Exactly like the rest of the group." So I said, "You are the group chairman (so do you need anything different)." He said, "Yeah okay if it has to be, it has to be."

What were your first impressions when you met him?

I just loved the guy from day one.

He's just a very likeable guy. He's humble. He is beautiful. He is extremely articulate.

Says a little, but means every word. Extremely polite. Gets his work done, without shouting and screaming. That's the first impression clearly.

Also very astute in terms of his comments and things. Normally you sit with a client and the client is saying things for the sake of saying things or because you know you are asking him leading questions.

Here (in Ratan Tata's case) there were no questions asked and he sort of picked up the essence and commented on the essence, which made us relook at stuff we were doing very, very clearly.

Very single-focused ideas, which was great. Tremendous conviction.

And he was all there. Paying attention to every word.

There was no fiddling with his cell phone and trying to sms, trying to respond e-mails, take the phone and sign letters during the conversation. Nothing like that.

It was just dedicated time which is great fun.

Please click Next to read about Ratan Tata, the architect


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Ratan Tata at aTata Tea annual general meeting in Kolkata.
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

And from there how did the relationship progress?

Then a few years later, he called me one day and said, "Listen, help me with my house." So I took over and started helping him.

That's where I interacted with him on an all-the-time basis. That was a fun interaction.

You respected this man. Not because he was head of the Tata group. But because he was a gentleman. And you see very few.

I am not the kind of guy who has too many heroes. In fact, I don't have any heroes. This is one guy who I would say I would look up to him as a reasonable example of a good human being.

Did you work with him elsewhere?

We have done several things for the Tata group, several buildings, several interiors and several projects and stuff, but never one-on-one with Ratan.

We worked with him when he was the chairman of Tata-VSNL. So we showed our buildings to him and he was very clear about what he wanted in those buildings.

By that time one understood what he wanted. I sort of sensed that I could understand what he wanted which is a nice feeling, because when you realise or pre-empt what the client wants when he made certain comments you could respond saying, 'Great, we don't mind changing it.'

For which projects did Ratan Tata prefer to be hands on?

When it comes to design he is hands on! There is no question about it. He comes in with his sleeves rolled up, if you know what I am saying.

It is not one of those -- 'If you ask me I will give you my opinion. Let's do it like this.' (But there is) beautiful humility. Lovely acceptance of learning.

He is very open to understanding and hearing you out on things. Very quick to say: "Sorry, I thought I had a better idea than you did, but maybe your idea is better."

I have been seeing him at very close quarters while doing his home. And I probably pushed him to the edge several times, like normal architects would do to their clients.

He has never fallen off, he has never shown it and he has never lost his cool about it.

Can you give us an example of when you pushed him to the edge?

You know, one of those -- I think it should be this way and I don't think it should be that way -- you know that kind of logic. We sort of joke about stuff: "If I give it to you Ratan, you will make it two inches thick." And I say, "Yeah boss, if I give it to you, will make it 2 mm."

Please click Next to read about about Ratan Tata's legendary modesty...


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, and then chairman of the Tata group Ratan Tata at the Taj hotel in Mumbai.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

So you call him Ratan and he calls you Ratan?

My family gets very upset when I call him boss or chief or RNT, because that's the way we talk to each other.

I call him Ratan when I have to. I call him Mr Tata when I need to address him in company; it is sometimes important.

I always refer to him as, "Mr Tata said..." if I am talking to a third party, but otherwise it is very cool.

Where does his special modesty come from?

It is just an honest thing.

When he would finish our meeting he would shake everybody's hand at the end of the meeting, saying, "Thank you for coming" and this (includes) my regular contractors, including my driver, who would be standing around there salaam-ing. That kind of politeness!

He is the kind of sensitive guy who may not call his driver on a Sunday because he would rather drive his car on his own. (He) is not one of those (for whom) there is an attendant at all times.

He is normal. He is a nice, normal guy.

Please click Next to read why choosing an architect to head the Tata group was ideal... choice


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Ratan Tata with Raymond Bickson, left, managing director, Taj Hotels, and R K Krishnakumar, then vice-chairman, Indian Hotels, at the reopening of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai , December 21, 2008 after the 26/11 terrorist attacks.
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

You always spoke to him -- architect to architect.

Do you feel he might have been happier had he just remained an architect rather than become chairman of the Tata group?

The nice thing about architects is that they are in a position to do all these things, which is lovely. It was very easy for him, with his architectural training, to be chairman of the Tata group.

We are trained like that. We can handle multiple impulses, multiple facets.

He has sort of grown up in the industry and in his own Tata group, so it makes a lot of sense.

Will he continue working on design after retirement?

Very often he has talked about how "I would like my own studio, so please design this room as my studio."

And I am saying: "For what?" And he says, "I would like to get back to architecture."

He would love to design his own home. Probably do another home for himself; whatever he wants to do.

Architects love projects, their own initiatives. It could be anything. He would just have a great time. And he would be good at it.

His mind is analytic and he is into details, which is a lovely combination.

Please click Next to read about Ratan Tata's non-work interests


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Ratan Tata with his dream project, the Nano, January 10, 2008.
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Will he spend most of his time in his retirement on humanitarian causes?

The reality is that he is still the chairman of the trusts, which as humanitarian as you can go.

In terms of his other interests: He's a jazz man. He loves listening to jazz, loves listening music. He loves movies. He watches movies.

He is continually, I would say, glued to the television.

Why do you think Mr Tata decided to continue as the chairman of the trusts instead of retiring completely?

I am not sure. I could talk to him about anything I wanted, but one hasn't sat down and probed and tried to figure out, and get an edge on what the world knows about him, on what he's going to do.

Basically, he wants to just relax, which is good, which is lovely, because he has, not like many other people, many other interests which are non-work interests.

I think he is very clear that he would make a huge mark on society, if he continued to head the trusts, because I can see the way the Tata trusts are moving now, in terms of their professionalism, in the space they are moving, which he has been responsible for.

(The trusts) have become a very potent instrument for philanthropy, I would say.

He loves travelling. He is on a plane most of the time. I am amazed at his energy.

Australia, San Francisco, Bombay, Indonesia, Bombay. He goes meeting to meeting, hotel to hotel and plane to plane.

So far he has been doing it because he had to go. He is not doing it because he likes flying round the world.

It has been pretty much wherever his work takes back. But now he is probably going to enjoy his travels.

I think he is going to slow it down. I hope he is going to slow it down and soak in whatever he wants to.

He can handle his travel. It is amazing. And he likes to go and chill on weekends in Alibag (the beach resort south of Mumbai). He has a home there, take in the sun.

Please click Next to read about Ratan Tata's love for animals...


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Sergio Marchionne, right, Fiat chief executive, Ratan Tata, second right, Ravi Kant, second left, then managing director, Tata Motors, and Alfredo Altavilla, then CEO, Tofas, after unveiling a Fiat car at the 8th Auto Expo in New Delhi.
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

Tell us about his humanitarian side.

He is a respectful human being. He is a human being first, which is very rare.

He is completely respectful of anybody who works with him, for him, along with him, around him. He is extremely respectful.

So even if there is a labour guy, breaking a wall, he will be respectful of that ie concerned about the sensitivity to that.

He loves his dogs. I have seen him rolling in the grass with his dogs. A lovely sight.

Many of his dog friends have been (with him) to the US Club (the United Services club) and they discuss only dogs in those meetings, those evenings.

One of those dogs had a broken leg and he sort of nursed that dog and taken him around the world and got him operated, physiotherapy for the dog.

Since he is a big animal lover, can fellow animal lovers look forward to special projects for animal care?

I am sure he will.

He has so many interests and so many people who are going (to want to use his name/time). He is going to have to be very selective about what he does or what he doesn't.

Otherwise, he is going to go back to the same 24 hour day, that he has been in all these years.

Ratan does not talk too much about his plans. I guess they are growing in his system till he finds the right place and the right time to sow that seed.

He won't gas about it, he won't do a media hype or do a prep before it happens. There is no running campaign before it hits the ground.

Please click Next to read about how Ratan Tata's new home reflects him...


Exclusive: The Ratan Tata Few Know

Image: Ratan Tata flags off a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti on the Magic India Discovery tour in Mumbai.
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

Tell us something more about Ratan Tata, the person.

I have probably spent much more time with him, that many others have in the last couple of years, but it has been focused niche time.

He is extremely approachable. Extremely approachable. My wife, my daughter and I went to say hi to him on Christmas day. I called him up and said: "Boss, can we come by?"

He said: "Yeah sure, 5 o'clock or six o' clock is good."

And we went there and said hi to him. I didn't want to waste too much time just to wish him, and wish him well, before everybody and the world got onto his case on December 28 (when he retired).

He came out to see us and he saw my battered Ford car. He said: "At least you are driving a car now!"

He had earlier been seeing me driving an Innova. We keep having these little, you know...

He saw us out and walked us to the car. It is one of those graces that one does in a middle class environment. One doesn't expect the king of the jungle to do it.

How does his home reflect him?

He is an extremely honest and simple guy.

Down to the point of frustration (for me) -- where you can't even use good quality material, which looks expensive.

The point is (for him that) if there is an as elegant an alternative and it works for him (he wants that).

So his home is designed for the user and the user is himself and his dogs. He is very caring about the dogs not slipping on this surface and them losing their step on such and such.

How is he settling into his new home?

He is settling in slowly. He is arranging his home himself which is lovely. It is something I really admire.

Every time you see his home it has grown from the heart, grown from a clear understanding of having contemplated what would look best at this particular point at this time. So he is (really) living into the space.

He has built this home himself over many years. Probably started seven to eight years ago. He has architected this house for himself on his own so it is a very Ratan Tata design if you know what I am saying.

It is him emulated in the house. A beautiful black, grey and white house and there is a strong Ferrari red wall that overpowers you. There are these bright Fab India type of cushions and upholstery.

Very simple, very modest.

People can't handle that. "Arre Ratan Tata ke liye tu ne aisa kiya (You did this for Ratan Tata!)? You should have done Italian marble, something, offered him something?"

So I am saying: "No, this is him. This is clearly what he is all about."

He has a pretty full life. He is in a very enviable position, where he owns nothing and yet he has access to everything.

It is a beautiful place to be. I know that he is very sensitive about his wealth, for instance, because he knows that he has none.

He is very frugal in that sense. He could probably buy an aircraft carrier if he wanted to. But the point is he won't. He would probably invest his money in a plane because that gives him tremendous joy.

He has a few cars. I have seen him in a Nano. I think, a yellow one. He has a Ferrari. And, I think, a Maserati. A couple of Mercedes. He drives a Honda.

When he came to my place he drove a white Honda which is fine for him. I called him over to my place just to say hi one Sunday morning and come over and chit chat. And he came.

I said I will stand downstairs to park the car and he said: "Yeah, sure."

He came with his driver. He said: "I called the driver because I didn't want to hassle you about parking my car."

A guy like him could probably be buzzing with twelve drivers on shifts and several servants to handle everything that he does. But it is likely that he picks up his own plate (and takes it into the kitchen)...