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'Cyrus was an extremely, extremely, humble person'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
Last updated on: September 13, 2022 18:38 IST
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'Cyrus was generous, hospitable, sharing of whatever he had.'
'He never ever acted like the inheritor of great wealth.'

IMAGE: Cyrus Mistry, then chairman, Tata Sons, left, with his predecessor Ratan Tata in Kolkata. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

When Meera Isaacs, principal for 25 years and now senior advisor at south Mumbai's storied 162-year-old Cathedral and John Connon School, first set eyes on Cyrus Mistry he was a student and she an English and history teacher.

Isaacs didn't have an opportunity to teach him, but Cyrus and her daughter Nalini were in the same class and Nalini impressed upon her mom what a sweet classmate he was.

Her more distant acquaintance with Cyrus blossomed into a kind of distinctive fond alumnus-principal relationship, when Cyrus's two sons were enrolled at the Cathedral school.

Isaacs came to Cathedral in 1977, a few years after trading dreams of becoming a journalist, like her father, who died young on assignment, for a BEd at her teacher mother's insistence.

For Isaacs, who spent 44 years at Cathedral, dealing with sometimes difficult or challenging parents was as much part of the turf as moulding and shepherding students towards shining futures, and it was always a surprise to discover what a delightful old boy and school parent Cyrus was, every time she met him. He stood out for his courtesy, for his modesty and his willingness to help.

When Cyrus faced hostility and upheaval at Bombay House -- the headquarters of the Tata business group where he was chairman -- in October 2016, only a few streets away, Cathedral teachers, parents and students were "rooting" for the former Cathedralite (the unofficial motto of Cathedral students is 'Once a Cathedralite always a Cathedralite').

Isaacs received the news that Cyrus had been killed in a road accident on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai highway, from a student or ex-student that rainy Sunday day before last. She could not process the information out of horrified disbelief.

Recalling with sorrow, "I was astounded. I couldn't believe it." His funeral, she says to Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com gave her closure.

Mr Cyrus Mistry was a Cathedral boy. Maybe you were his teacher or at least knew him when he was in school?

Yes, yes, I knew him.

Not only as student -- I didn't really know him that well as a student, I've never taught him -- but he and my daughter were in the same class.

He later became a parent of the school. As a parent, and an alumnus of the school, I have interacted with him fairly often and I've always found him to be extremely polite, very courteous, extremely well grounded.

He never ever showed off and never ever was arrogant in any way whatsoever. It was really nice -- I liked that about him.

I can't remember what he had come to school for (once), maybe to chat about something or the other and I asked him if he would like some tea. He said, 'Yes, of course'.

I asked my peon to get some tea, and the chap who brought it was a new guy. He brought in so sloppily like some wayside sort of affair. I was so embarrassed, because I knew what Cyrus was getting to drink -- I was drinking the same thing.

I apologised, 'Cyrus, I'm so sorry. I'm very embarrassed to give you this tea.'

He said -- and this was before he became the Tata CEO -- 'Mrs Isaacs, so what? I'm a contractor. I drink tea like this all the time'.

He was so gracious and he was trying to put me at ease, I presume, because I was embarrassed. But that was his style. Always very low key, able to laugh at himself. I thought he was an extremely, extremely, humble person. Never ever saw him acting up in any way whatsoever.

In fact, the entire family -- they are all very nice people. His sister Aloo (elder sister Aloo Mistry who is married to businessman Noel Tata, Ratan Tata's step brother) was also equally lovely. She was on our PTA for a very long time. Cyrus's wife (Rohiqa, the late external affairs minister Justice M C Chagla's granddaughter) is very nice. The children are lovely -- very well brought up. Extremely courteous.

It's a gracious sort of family. Not brash in any way at all. I don't think their wealth means that they have to flaunt it or make a great deal of it. Nice people. Very low-key people.

They went about their business in a (rather) quiet way. There was absolutely no flaunting of anything. Also, generous -- the entire family is very generous.

I remember that one of my students was going abroad and the mother called me up and said she needed a little financial help. I think it was after the Tata episode and Cyrus had gone back to Shapoorji (Pallonji, the family's construction group) and was doing fabulously well, naturally, over there.

I called him up and asked, 'Can you help this child -- if at all -- that will be very nice'.

Or maybe he was the CEO of Tatas, I'm not very sure. He said, 'Yes, of course, don't worry, Mrs Isaacs, you have asked, and I will definitely see to it'.

And sure enough, he sent money across and saw to it that she (the student) got a certain amount to help her with her fees abroad.

That was the kind of gentleman he was and without any fanfare at all. He even said if she needs a little more next year, he can also help out.

IMAGE: Meera Isaacs, seated right, with her students at a school event. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com

Did you meet him often and for any particular reason? Or just as a parent of two boys in the school?

As a parent and an ex-student. My ex-students mean a great deal to me. I've known them for donkey's years. Over the years, you get to like some of them very, very much indeed. Especially if they have a particular soft spot for the school.

I've always found that with Cyrus, and with the entire Mistry clan. I really liked that the boys were so well-brought-up and well-grounded.

You would be referring to Cyrus and his elder brother Shapoor? Or their children?

Cyrus and Aloo also, but I am also talking about their children. The whole family. Rohiqa also, Cyrus' wife; she's an extremely fine person. They have got class -- you see that.

What would be your recollections of him when he was in school or whatever anybody ever told you about him when he was in school?
Most, I was told, remember elder brother Shapoor, but Mr Cyrus Mistry was a bit of an introvert.

Shapoor was certainly more flamboyant. There's no doubt about it. And he was very good looking too.

But Cyrus was a soft, gentle, sort of person (emotion in her voice). I knew about him because of my daughter. She (would describe) what a nice boy he was.

He would invite them sometimes to his place in Juhu (north west Mumbai), when they were kids in the 9th or 10th standard -- I'm not exactly sure when.

They all would be invited over there and (she would describe) what a beautiful house it was on the beach. And she would talk about all the statues all over the place and all that.

Cyrus was also generous, hospitable, sharing of whatever he had. He never ever acted like the inheritor of great wealth or anything of that sort. Nothing. That wasn't there at all.

What did you feel when you heard about his death? It was quite a shock for many, especially after all the events that had taken place earlier and his end came before he had the time to really restore his reputation?

You're talking about what happened between Mr Tata and Cyrus?

Yes, because now he has died. He didn't really have a time to sort of come out of it?

I know that when Cyrus was going through this rather ugly phase at Tatas, the Cathedralite loyalty all kicked in big time. Every single person with whom I spoke to about it and even I myself -- we were all rooting for Cyrus.

We were all rooting for Cyrus because we just thought it was pretty awful what had happened.

I remember my daughter Nalini was abroad and she and her friends, who were in the same class with him, were so agitated. All of them were rooting for Cyrus, and I too, because I thought of him as one of our children.

You think of them as your children, and then, I think, the protective instinct jumps out. That's how we felt about him; everybody did.

How did you get to hear about his death? What did you feel?

I couldn't believe it. I was just stunned. Really stunned. I think everybody was.

Suddenly, I saw this ticker across the TV screen: Cyrus Mistry dead.

Before that somebody had sent me a message. I was just wondering, is this for real or is somebody acting silly and playing a foolish prank?!

Then I saw this on the television, like a running ticker. It was absolutely astounding.

I was just feeling so sick at the mere thought of it. I literally felt sick, because Jehangir (Pandole, who also died in the accident with Cyrus Mistry) also was an ex-student...

As was Darius (Pandole, who was in the front seat with his wife Dr Anahita Pandole, who was driving the car. Both of them are in hospital).

Yes. And Anahita, though she didn't study with us, she's a lovely person and all of them are parents of the school also.

They've been here forever and ever. This must be the fourth generation or something.

To think that (it happened to) all of them, whom we have known and we have interacted with. This was such a horrible way to go. Just awful. So young. It was bad.

In their tributes many have spoken over and over again about what a good man Cyrus was. You are a teacher, an educator and a principal, how does a child get raised like this, to turn out so 'good'.

I think those were the family values given to them. Even Aloo, his sister, she's the same. They are very, very, understated, very generous, warm, affectionate. That's the way they are. They just do not flaunt anything and don't flaunt their wealth at all.

Even their children, Aloo's children, Cyrus' children, Shapoor's children -- they're all extremely grounded kids.

I think those are the family values that are given to them. Even Mr Pallonji Mistry. He was also very low key. That's the way they are.

They know how to handle their wealth and their fame in a very capable sort of manner. They don't go mad about these things. They accept it -- it (the wealth) is there in their family and that's that, finished -- it's just one of those things.

IMAGE: Meera Isaacs. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com

He was a voracious reader. Do you remember what kind of student he was in school? What did he excel in?

I really have no idea, because I have never taught him. I just knew him in school, and more or less who he was and I knew of Cyrus because of my daughter -- they were friends. Apart from that, I didn't know how good he really was.

(Elder brother) Shapoor made more of a mark because he was more noticed -- he was tall, with all that curly hair of his and nice light eyes, so he stood out.

Cyrus was not like that. He was just a very, very, nice, decent human being.

When I got to know him (better) later on in life, when I was principal -- because as a teacher, I must say, I didn't really know him well -- but as a principal of a school, when I interacted with him, I always found him extremely gentle, calm, charming, and very giving. An extremely nice child. As I said that was true of the whole family. It was like a family trait.

Your daughter must be very upset when she heard of Cyrus' death.

Yes, yes. I unfortunately had to convey it to her.

I went for the funeral. The Cathedral children immediately came and helped me meet everybody. There was a huge number of people over there -- a really, really, large number. There must have been 1,000 people standing, waiting quietly to pay their respects.

These Cathedral kids (Cyrus' classmates) were all there. I mean, I keep calling them kids -- they all must be 50 odd years old now. Cyrus' funeral gave us a sort of sense closure, after that (crash), it was horrible. You couldn't even think about it.

The whole day went like that, because in the evening was Jehangir (Pandole's) funeral also at Doongarwadi (the Parsi Towers of Silence in south Mumbai). Altogether dreadful.

Dr Anahita Pandole and Mr Darius Pandole are still in hospital.

Anahita is very, very, very, beautiful person. She really is. She's got such a great heart, a heart of gold, I will say. She's always there to help people. She goes out of her way to do so many wonderful things.

I just hope that she's going to get well and be able to get over this entire trauma, emotional trauma, physical trauma, and Darius too. All the Pandole boys were very good squash players and went to Harvard and all that on squash scholarships. They were always very good at playing squash. It runs in the family.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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