Two years after industrial visionary Jamshedji Tata’s company began to transform a jungle expanse in eastern India into the hub of a steel empire, a tall, lean man with a thick moustache trudged in to seek work.
Eldi Mallaiah Naidu had made the long, tortuous 1909 journey from his native Eluru town, in what would later become Andhra Pradesh state, to this majestic and imposing forest expanse. He quickly got a job in a Tata Iron and Steel Company powerhouse.
Over the next century, the family walked alongside the shadow of Tata’s growth -- his army soldier son would join the company too, so would his grandson, and his great-grandson. So even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed thousands in Jamshedpur last week, Satish Kumar, 48, the fourth generation Tata man in the family, sat silently in the crowd, awaiting a centenary of his own: next year, 100 years of their Tata association.
“I am not sure if there are many families that have served companies for a century, anywhere in the world,” said Kumar, sitting at is home with his two sons and pictures of Tata workers from previous generations. His son awaits an opportunity to join Tata Steel as well.
The journey of Naidu’s 1909 journey to Bihar’s back-of-beyond had been sparked by a far greater journey undertaken several years ago, in 1901, when Jamshedji Tata travelled to New York and walked into the office of Charles Page Perin, famous as America’s best geologist, to ask him to help him set up India’s first steel plant.
“I was poring over some accounts in the office when the door opened and a stranger in a strange garb entered,” Perin wrote later. “Slowly he said, `I believe I have found the man I have been looking for … Will you come to India with me?'”
Jamshedji died in 1904 but his family persevered with the dream. Two years after Tata began making steel in 1912, the first World War broke out, and the Tata plant became the only source of steel for the British east of the Suez Canal. In 1918, the city was named Jamshedpur by the British, after its founder.
But troubles were piling up, and by 1924, the company was battling for its existence. A cable message arrived from Jamshedpur to the late Jamshedji’s son Dorabji Tata, with a grim warning: there was no money to pay salaries. To save the company, he pledged all of his personal wealth of Rs. 1 crore – about Rs. 100 crore at current estimates. It survived.
That was the year when the next man from the Naidu family adopted the Tata uniform.
Nag Bhushanam, a subedar in the army’s 9 Madras Infantry, had just retired from the force. He had decided to join his father in Jamshedpur, and at the Tatas.
Bhushanam could not work long; he was killed in 1926 after two years in service when a heavy object fell on his head at work. It was the worst possible tragedy for the father, E Mallaiah Naidu, who lit the funeral pyre of his son. The father worked on for many more years, retiring from the company in 1944 after a 25-year run.
It was still a tough place to live in. Jackals used to sit outside Naidu’s house every night. And during the second World War, the family hunkered in their homes at night, afraid the industrial town might be bombed.
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Bhushanam’s sudden death also left a vacuum. Even as the family recovered from the tragedy, eleven years passed without anyone in Naidu’s family on Tata’s rolls.
Finally, Bhushanam’s son Eldi Surya Ramarao continued the tradition. He joined as a grade III clerk in 1955 and retired after 41 years in 1996 as an assistant planning officer in production control. He died last November at 73.
But even before Rama Rao could retire, his son had already become his colleague. Satish Kumar, now a senior operator in the tube division, joined in 1980 and has logged 28 years. Satish Kumar’s boss was also his father’s boss.
Now Satish Kumar’s eldest son, the fifth-generation E Tarun Kumar, 17, wants to join Tata Steel as well.
“We are No. 6 in the world, I want us to be number one,” said Satish Kumar, sitting alongside his two sons and yellowing framed pictures of his grandfather and great-grandfather.
Kumar is now a mirror of this cosmopolitan city itself: he can speak but not write his native tongue Telugu, but can speak or understand Hindi, English, Bengali, Bhojpuri and Punjabi.
The company also transformed. Through the 1990s, thousands of employees were offered an early retirement scheme under which they would get equivalents of their salaries until their retirement age. No one in Kumar’s family opted for it.
There was also a time when Tata employees could nominate a family member for a job at the company; now Tarun will have to compete for a job. “My grandfather used to tell me of a time there were just jungles here, when a van used to go to the railway station to round up people who wanted to work. Anyone who was interested would be given jobs instantly,” said E. Tarun Kumar. “I am waiting for my turn.”