While working for a company called Toshniwal in Mumbai around 4 decades back, my boss narrated a story of his friend’s son, Ajay who had returned from US for vacation. Ajay a young guy in his late 20s, had completed his MBA from an Ivy league school and was working for a Wall street company then. Ajay had gone to Bombay House to meet his school mate. It was around lunch time and Ajay’s friend was out on a client visit. As Ajay was waiting in the lobby, an old man looked at him and asked,” hey young man, whom are you waiting for?” Ajay gave the details. “Till he comes, you may come to my cabin.” Ajay followed suit. Half an hour later his friend turned up went to a nearby restaurant.
Over lunch when the friend asked what was the topic of discussion, Ajay replied,” When he came to know about my background, he asked about my opinion on India and the Indian economy, I shared my thoughts on the real problems ailing our country.” By the way who was that old man?” The friend replied, “Ajay, he was JRD Tata. You should have thought twice before giving your advice to such a man!”
I was narrating this incident to a stranger while waiting for a local train in Vile Parle station. He shared an interesting personal experience. He used to wait at Asiatic bus stop at around 6 pm which was near Eros cinema at Churchgate station in Mumbai. Every day while standing in the bus queue, he used to notice a car which used to stop just 10 feet way from the bus stop and the first person in the queue used to get in the car. It was a bit surprising; the same car every day, but the person who boarded was different. One day this man decided to solve this mystery and left the previous two buses to be the first in the queue when the car was to arrive. He got onto the front seat. The person in the backseat was JRD Tata reading his newspaper. The driver used to drop JRD at his residence in Peddar Road via Chowpatty & Wilson college. The empty front seat was getting filled up for that routine journey.
Sudha Murthy while working as a trainee engineer in TELCO (now Tata Motors) narrates an incident when she was waiting for Narayan Murthy in the lobby of Bombay House after office hours. JRD waited along with her till NRN arrived. Young Sudha Murthy still recollects the anxiety she felt when she was with this grand old man. Sudha Murthy was to put in her papers when NRN and his team were to start Infosys. She happened to run into JRD once again. When she told him about the new company, JRD said, “All the best for your new venture, beyond profits think of building a great institution which can be also used for the social good.” Such simple and yet profound message has left deep impact on the work Infosys foundation has been carrying out.
Two years back Ratan Tata was to be felicitated with Lifetime Award for contribution towards philanthropy by Prince Charles at the Buckingham Palace. Ratan Tata declined to attend the function as his dog was not keeping well.
Dr Albert Schweitzer was on his new hospital project at Lambarene at Gabon in Africa. One afternoon, while on the rooftop he asked a young passer-by to help him lift the tiles on to the roof. The young African said, “I am an intellectual, I do not do such menial work.” Schweitzer replied, “I also struggled to be like you but could not succeed.” Albert Schweitzer though from Alsace in France did phenomenal work for the poor and the downtrodden in Africa. He established hospitals for the lepers. He had PhDs in Philosophy, Theology and then on Bach Music. He has around 25 books to his credit including one on Indian Philosophy.
Considered as one of the most significant persons of the 20th Century, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1952 for the exceptional humanitarian work in Africa. When the Swedish Academy sent him telegram to grace the award function, he expressed his inability to receive the award that year as his hospital work was in full swing and felt that the long journey from Gabon to Sweden may affect his work, He received it later in 1954.
H W. Fowler (1858-1933) and his younger brother Frank published a book called as The King’s English in 1906 and The Dictionary of Modern English Usage (MEU) in 1926. The books have become a de-facto standard in the English-speaking community for the right word usage. MEU suggests an apt usage of a word with guidelines in avoiding jargon, e.g. During the second world war, Winston Churchill said to the Director of Military Intelligence, “Why do you write the word Intensive here? You should be using Intense instead. For clarity refer the Fowler’s Modern English Usage.”
Fowler the lexicographer who worked on MEU for two decades was known for his spartan simplicity. Clarendon Press oversaw publishing and printing his works. The secretary of Clarendon wrote to him offering him the wages of a servant in addition to his remuneration.
It was the month of November, Fowler was 68 then living in London. His message to the secretary read:
My half an hour from 7 to 7.30 am was spent in:
- Two-mile run along the road &
- Swim in my next—door neighbour’s pond, exactly as some 48 years ago. That I am still in condition for such freaks; I attribute to having had for nearly 30 years no servants to reduce me to a sedentary and all-literary existence. And now you seem to say: Let us give you a servant and the means of slow suicide and quick lexicography. Not I know it: I must go my slow way.
Rahul Dravid was the chief guest at the annual gathering of Design for Change in Ahmedabad. The students asked him: What makes you nervous:
RD: Would it be OK If I say it is my wife?
What is your greatest fear?
RD: In my dreams I feel I have forgotten how to bat. And when I wake up realize that that dream has come true.
What is unique about you?
RD: I can bat well but so can many others. So, there is nothing unique about me.
What is common between all these great people with a high level of competence and intelligence but the humility of not wearing it up on their sleeves? Be it JRD., Ratan Tata, Schweitzer, Fowler or Rahul Dravid? I think it includes active listening, thought clarity, a great sense of self-deprecating humour (sometimes black too). Shakespeare described Brutus as ‘his life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up to the world and say, this was a Man!’ Genuine humility may be an essential quality towards becoming one.
Sometimes it may be difficult to differentiate between genuine and pseudo-humility. it cannot be deciphered from the body language or what one says. E.g. When a question is asked, both the idiot and the master smile. The idiot smiles as he has not understood the question, the master smiles as he has understood the futility of the question.