An angry letter from a young lady made JRD Tata change his rule Sudha was livid
when a job advertisement posted by a Tata company at the institution where she
was completing her post graduation stated that "Lady candidates need not
apply". She dashed off a post card to JRD Tata, protesting against the
Following this, Sudha was called for an interview and she became the first
female engineer to work on the shop floor at Telco (now Tata Motors). It was
the beginning of an association that would change her life in more ways than
There are two photographs that hang on my office wall. Everyday when I entered
my office I look at them before starting my day.
They are pictures of two old people. One is of a gentleman in a blue suit and
the other is a black and white image of a man with dreamy eyes and a white
beard. People have often asked me if the people in the photographs are related
to me. Some have even asked me, "Is this black and white photo that of a Sufi
saint or a religious Guru?"
I smile and reply "No, nor are they related to me. These people made an impact
on my life. I am grateful to them." "Who are they?" "The man in the blue suit
is Bharat Ratna JRD Tata and the black and white photo is of Jamsetji Tata."
"But why do you have them in your office?"" You can call it gratitude."
Then, invariably, I have to tell the person the following story. It was a long
time ago. I was young and bright, bold and idealistic. I was in the final year
of my Master's course in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Science
(IISc) in Bangalore, then known as the Tata Institute.
Life was full of fun and joy. I did not know what helplessness or injustice
It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was getting warm and gulmohars
were blooming at the IISc campus . I was the only girl in my postgraduate department
and was staying at the ladies' hostel. Other girls were pursuing research in
different departments of Science.
I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in computer
science. I had been offered scholarships from Universities in the US. I had not
thought of taking up a job in India.
One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I saw an
advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard job-requirement notice
from the famous automobile company Telco (now Tata Motors). It stated that the
company required young, bright engineers, hardworking and with an excellent
academic background, etc.
At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply.?
I read it and was very upset. For the first time in my life I was up against
Though I was not keen on taking up the job, I saw it as a challenge. I had done
extremely well in academics, better than most of my male peers. Little did I
know then that in real life academic excellence is not enough to be successful?
After reading the notice I went fuming to my room. I decided to inform the
topmost person in Telco's management about the injustice the company was
perpetrating. I got a postcard and started to write, but there was a problem: I
did not know who headed Telco.
I thought it must be one of the Tatas. I knew JRD Tata was the head of the Tata
Group; I had seen his pictures in newspapers (actually, Sumant Moolgaokar was
the company's chairman then). I took the card, addressed it to JRD and started
To this day I remember clearly what I wrote.
"The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the
basic infrastructure industries in India, such as iron and steel, chemicals,
textiles and locomotives. They have cared for higher education in India since
1900 and they were responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of
Science. Fortunately, I study there. But I am surprised how a company such as
Telco is discriminating on the basis of gender."
I posted the letter and forgot about it. Less than 10 days later, I received a
telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at Telco's Pune facility
at the company's expense. I was taken aback by the telegram. My hostel mate
told me that i should use the opportunity to go to Pune free of cost and buy
them the famous Pune saris for cheap! I collected Rs 30 each from everyone who
wanted a sari. When I look back, I feel like laughing at the reasons for my
going, but back then they seemed good enough to make the trip.
It was my first visit to Pune and I immediately fell in love with the city. To
this day it remains dear to me. I feel as much at home in Pune as I do in
Hubli, my hometown. The place changed my life in so many ways.
As directed, I went to Telco's Pimpri office for the interview. There were six
people on the panel and I realised then that this was serious business.
"This is the girl who wrote to JRD," I heard somebody whisper as soon as I
entered the room. By then I knew for sure that I would not get the job. The
realisation abolished all fear from my mind, so I was rather cool while the
interview was being conducted. Even before the interview started, I reckoned
the panel was biased, so I told them, rather impolitely, "I hope this is only a
They were taken aback by my rudeness, and even today I am ashamed about my
attitude.The panel asked me technical questions and I answered all of them.
Then an elderly gentleman with an affectionate voice told me, "Do you Know> why
we said lady candidates need not apply? The reason is that we have never
employed any ladies on the shop floor. This is not a co-ed college; this is a
factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker throughout. We
appreciate that, but people like you should work in research
Laboratories." I was a young girl from small-town Hubli. My world had been a
limited place. I did not know the ways of large corporate houses and their
difficulties, so I answered, "But you must start somewhere, otherwise no woman
will ever be able to work in your factories."
Finally, after a long interview, I was told I had been successful. So this was
what the future had in store for me. Never had I thought I would take up a job
in Pune .
I met a shy young man from Karnataka there, we became good friends and we got
It was only after joining Telco that I realised who JRD was: the uncrowned King
of Indian industry. Now I was scared, but I did not get to meet him till I was
transferred to Bombay. One day I had to show some reports to Mr. Moolgaokar,
our chairman, who we all knew as SM. I was in his office on the first floor of
Bombay House (the Tata headquarters) when, suddenly JRD walked in. That was the
first time I saw "appro JRD". Appro means "our" in Gujarati. This was the
affectionate term by which people at Bombay House called him.
I was feeling very nervous, remembering my postcard episode. SM introduced me
nicely, "Jeh (that's what his close associates called him), this young woman is
an engineer and that too a postgraduate. She is the first woman to work on the
Telco shop floor." JRD looked at me. I was praying he would not ask me any
questions about my interview (or the postcard that preceded it).
Thankfully, he didn't. Instead, he remarked. "It is nice that girls are getting
into engineering in our country. By the way, what is your name?"
"When I joined Telco I was Sudha Kulkarni, Sir," I replied. "Now I am Sudha
Murthy." He smiled and kindly smile and started a discussion with SM. As for me, I
almost ran out of the room.
After that I used to see JRD on and off. He was the Tata Group chairman and I
was merely an engineer. There was nothing that we had in common. I was in awe
One day I was waiting for Murthy, my husband, to pick me up after office hours.
To my surprise I saw JRD standing next to me. I did not know how to react. Yet
again I started worrying about that postcard. Looking back, I realize JRD had
forgotten about it. It must have been a small incident for him, but not so for
"Young lady, why are you here?" he asked. "Office time is over." I said,"Sir, I'm waiting for my husband to come and pick me up." JRD said, "It is getting dark and there's no one in the corridor. I'll wait with you till your husband comes."
I was quite used to waiting for Murthy, but having JRD waiting alongside made
me extremely uncomfortable.
I was nervous. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at him. He wore a simple
white pant and shirt. He was old, yet his face was glowing. There wasn't any
air of superiority about him. I was thinking, "Look at this person. He is a
chairman, a well-respected man in our country and he is waiting for the sake of
an ordinary employee."
Then I saw Murthy and I rushed out. JRD called and said, "Young lady, tell your
husband never to make his wife wait again."
In 1982 I had to resign from my job at Telco. I was reluctant to go, but I
really did not have a choice. I was coming down the steps of Bombay House after
wrapping up my final settlement when I saw JRD coming up. He was absorbed in
thought. I wanted to say goodbye to him, so I stopped. He saw me and paused.
Gently, he said, "So what are you doing, Mrs Kulkarni?" (That was the way he
always addressed me.) "Sir, I am leaving Telco." "Where are you going?" he
asked. "Pune, Sir. My husband is starting a company called Infosys and I'm
shifting to Pune."
"Oh! And what will you do when you are successful." "Sir, I don't know whether
we will be successful." "Never start with diffidence," he advised me. "Always
start with confidence. When you are successful you must give back to society.
Society gives us so much; we must reciprocate. I wish you all the best."
Then JRD continued walking up the stairs. I stood there for what seemed like a
millennium. That was the last time I saw him alive. Many years later I met
Ratan Tata in the same Bombay House, occupying the chair JRD once did. I told him of
my many sweet memories of working with Telco.
Later, he wrote to me, "It was nice hearing about Jeh from you. The sad part is
that he's not alive to see you today."
I consider JRD a great man because, despite being an extremely busy person, he
valued one postcard written by a young girl seeking justice.
He must have received thousands of letters everyday. He could have thrown mine
away, but he didn't do that. He respected the intentions of that unknown girl,
who had neither influence nor money, and gave her an opportunity in his
company. He did not merely give her a job; he changed her life and mindset
Close to 50 per cent of the students in today's engineering colleges are girls.
And there are women on the shop floor in many industry segments.
I see these changes and I think of JRD. If at all time stops and asks me what I
want from life, I would say I wish JRD were alive today to see how the company
we started has grown. He would have enjoyed it wholeheartedly.
My love and respect for the House of Tata remains undiminished by the passage
of time. I always looked up to JRD . I saw him as a role model for his simplicity,
his generosity, his kindness and the care he took of his employees. Those blue
eyes always reminded me of the sky; they had the same vastness and
The author, Sudha Murthy wife of Narayana Murthy, is a widely published writer and chairperson of the Infosys Foundation involved in a number of social development initiatives.