It was probably the April of 1974.
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
I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in
Computer science. I had been offered scholarships from Universities
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 companyTelco (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 gender discrimination.
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 writing. 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
and steel, chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have cared for
higher Education in
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 I should use the opportunity to
go to Pune free of cost and buy them the famous Pune saris for
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
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
There were six people on the panel and I realised then that this was
"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 technical
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 married.
It was only after joining Telco that I realized 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
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
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
"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 of him.
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 realise JRD had forgotten about it. It
must have been a small incident for him, but not so for me.
"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
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
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 magnificence.
(Sudha Murthy is a widely published writer and chairperson of the
Infosys Foundation involved in a number of social development
initiatives. Infosys chairman Narayana Murthy is her husband.)
Article sourced from: Lasting Legacies (Tata Review- Special
Commemorative Issue 2004), brought out by the house of Tatas to
commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of JRD Tata on July 29,