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THE STEEL MAN WHO RAN AWAY TO PLAY TENNIS

“There are only three great Harrovians,” Russi used to say in jest, “Churchill, Nehru and myself. Churchill and Nehru have passed away, so you can imagine the load I am carrying.” On the night of May 16, the 96-year-old third Harrovian shed his load and quietly slipped away into the Calcutta night at his residence. Russi was no Churchill or Nehru, but he was no less a giant in the world of industry. In 1985, the BBC produced a programme called The Money Makers featuring the top six industrialists in the world. The panel consisted of Sir John Harvey Jones, chairman of ICI, Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat, Akio Morita of Sony, Robert Orville Anderson of ARCO, Stanley Ho of shipping and casinos in Hong Kong and Macau, and “Apro Dikra” as the Parsees would call him — Russi Mody, India’s Steel Man.

I saw the programme over and over again and Russi stood out like a beacon amongst them. His range of activity went far beyond just money-making. It was absolutely mind-boggling. In fact, the slogan that he coined for Tata’s “We also make steel” was spot on. His activities embraced the entire gambit of life with unparalleled enthusiasm. Can you imagine any of the five others in the programme at a party playing the piano till daybreak singing English and French songs with equal aplomb without repeating a single song? Music, fun, laughter and jollification were embedded in Russi’s soul, rubbing off generously on his friends and on everyone he met. At parties, the air was thick with risqué jokes, which brought down the barriers of the stuffy sophisticates with a bang. Invariably, as the party progressed, some of them came through with jokes which left us stunned; Russi had set them free.

Russi had a chameleonic personality. He filled in effortlessly with the top-hatted whites in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and was pals with the phuchkawala at Victoria Memorial, whom he sometimes bundled into his large Al-Capone-type black car, took him to his flat at Esplanade Mansions, and polished off a record 125 fully loaded phuchkas. “Ab ghar jao,” he used to say after giving him a wad of notes. Madly generous, Russi was always broke in his earlier days, but survived by bullying the bank manager and extracting more and more overdraft till his next pay check and bonus. His father, the very distinguished and upright Sir Homi Mody, was chairman of the bank, and would surely have disinherited Russi if he had learnt about it.

Food — any food from the roadside dhabas in the coalfields in Dhanbad to the Michelin-starred restaurants in the south of France — was irresistible for Russi. He just loved it and set many a record in the amount he could put away. One record I witnessed with awe and horror was at breakfast when he shovelled 16 fried eggs, sausages, bacon and tomatoes with countless pieces of buttered toast on to his plate in one fell swoop. While driving from Dhanbad to Jamshedpur shortly after, he said, “Let’s stop at the dhaba, I can’t drive on an empty stomach!” Thousands of calories and all the cholesterol were put to the sword by a frenetic level of activity. On weekends in Calcutta, Saturdays used to start with one, sometimes two rounds of golf followed by a dash to the South Club for as many sets as he could play before end of play. After that his insatiable love of fun, music and dance took him to Princess, a night club at the Grand Hotel till they closed. On Monday mornings, when the bill from Princess promptly arrived at his office, his two secretaries, Rajan and Sarathy, sat with hands on their heads wondering how to fend off the bill collectors. Russi liked to sneak off from office on Wednesday afternoons for a game of tennis. His boss in Calcutta, a conservative religious south Indian, had shut his eyes to Russi’s activities.

Once, Sir Jehangir Ghandy was scheduled to come to Calcutta on a Wednesday afternoon. Russi’s tactful secretaries begged him not to go for tennis as Sir Jehangir was bound to visit Russi’s room to check on Russi. But Russi was not prepared to give up his tennis. In his diary lying on the table, he wrote, “TPT CSC meeting on Wednesday at 3 pm,” and told his secretaries to take Sir Jehangir to his room, show him the diary and say that Russi had gone to the meeting. True enough, Sir Jehangir came to check upon the vagabond, and was shown the diary. He nodded knowledgeably and walked away. Little did he know that TPT CSC was an abbreviation of “To Play Tennis at Calcutta South Club”.

The other five “money makers” trapped the world in their web of gold. Russi’s gold-spinning capacity was limited by government regulations. His currency was different. He set humane and generous benchmarks for labour and worked hard to improve their living conditions. Many years ago, the British government sent a delegation to study and learn about the labour practices and dealings with unions that had led Tata’s to be virtually strike-free. Recently, one of Russi’s secretaries, Sarathy, spoke to me over the phone and said “Naresh, nobody knows or can imagine the good Russi did for thousands of workers and for the needy.” This, in my view, was Russi’s greatest achievement.

Which of the money-spinning five would have eaten his lunch at the workers canteen, gone to their homes to play Holi with their families, or known the first name of some of the workers on the shop floor? It was Russi’s ability to vault across the yawning chasm between workers and top management, share a joke with them and most of all laugh at himself. We all want to lend a helping hand, mingle and be at home with the less fortunates but fail to connect; only great men can do that.

In school, Russi was a flying wing in the rugby team. In life, he never took his foot off the accelerator and zoomed through his 96 years — a supernova who lit up thousands of lives and filled the nights with the sound of revelry.