I am working on a memoir of my childhood in India. Here’s a chapter on Jamshedpur, the small town in which I was born. It probably will not get into the final version in exactly this form, but for now, here it is!
Jamshedpur: The Steel City Where I was Born
Symphony in Steel, a silver gyre soared at the town’s heart in the market district of Bistapur–dazzling, twisted steel ribbons that joined midway, then spiralled and twirled upwards in the sunshine.
Symphony in steel; symphony in steel, I murmured with inward delight as we entered the raucous streets of Jamshedpur. I loved the words.
My vocabulary had evolved from my first word, “Ijit,’ which my father claimed I muttered whenever he slammed the brakes—and seconds before he too muttered: idiot. A cow shambled across the road, chewing straw; pedestrians cut in front of us, chatting, animated, oblivious. My father told us horror stories of his first driving days in Jamshedpur: the sacred cow whose leg he’d crushed, the slaughtered golden goose, the goat who… until we howled, begging him to stop. He did. Temporarily. But the next version grew gorier with keeping.
Iron and steel: magnets which drew us to Jamshedpur, through The Tata Iron and Steel Company, one of the world’s oldest, largest steel behemoths at which my father worked for 22 years. Jamshedpur was developed in 1907 after Jamshedji Nusserwanjee Tata, a Parsee industrialist discovered that the laterite-red soil was rich with iron ore. Indeed, the very gravel in our garden was made of murram, tiny balls of iron-ore or slag!
The company was proud of the jagged industrial skyline it stamped on the city, a tableau of cooling towers and mighty blast furnaces which huffed blackness into the skies, a skyline familiar from the company’s goodwill calendars and diaries.
The coal mines at Dhanbad; the Works at Tata Iron and Steel; the massive blast furnaces which worked night and day: the industrial backdrop of our childhood. We showed our houseguests around them, feeling immensely grown-up, for our father ignored company rules which banned children from the Works. He did, however, ensure we swallowed the compulsory salt tablets–an offering to the God of Steel–before we entered the Works, lest the dehydration and minerals lost in drenching streams of sweat made us faint, and tumble into great glowing rivers of orange molten iron, hypnotic and terrible, flowing from the furnaces into which shirtless, sweat-drenched men pitched coal.
* * *
Jamshedpur, fondly called Jampot, proudly called “The Steel City,” was India’s first planned industrial city, laid out by Julian Kennedy of Pittsburgh, with parallel streets, unimaginatively named from A to Z, East and West. Our company house was 6 C Road East, walking distance from the company, across the road from a lush little park with bougainvillea, canna, and jungle gyms, one of the parks the enlightened company nestled between city blocks. Across the road, too, were the Director’s bungalows, with bored guards at the gates, and magnificent Alsatian watchdogs, whom we befriended, charmed, and betrayed into bounding to the gates with unprofessional joy as we summoned them, “Jai. Jai. Jai.”
* * *
Jamshedpur is the world’s largest and oldest still-existing “company town.” It does not have a municipal corporation; TISCO provided electricity, sanitation, and even a free telephone service for all its employees, a white phone which sat beside the old black rotary dial Post and Telegraph phone, a colonial survival. They had different ring-tones; “TISCO” we’d call out, perkily, or “P and T,” with less enthusiasm.
All employees received free housing, the luxuriousness, size and location varying according to the job. We had a large sixteen roomed colonial house with a one acre garden, whereas some Catholics we visited who were manual workers in the Works had tiny, clay-walled, dark houses on the outskirts of town
The large houses of executives faced each other across broad tree-lined streets, swept daily, shaded with mature trees, lit with company street lights. At the back of each house were the servants’ quarters which also faced each other across dirt alleys. Each servant family was given a room, though no toilets or bathrooms. They used the street.
I never ventured to the lane at the back of my house, until as a volunteer with Mother Teresa, I went there in the mobile dispensary to hand out medicine, and was shocked by the faeces, the flies, the rubbish (our rubbish!) in heaps in concrete dumps waiting to be burnt, the fetid drains. This shadow lane had always been there, behind my house, but I had never peeked there.
* * *
Tata Iron and Steel drew ambitious executives from throughout India; indeed, almost everyone was from somewhere else. However, it was founded, and dominated by Parsees, followers of the Prophet Zoroaster who moved to Gujarat in the West Coast of India, in the tenth century, fleeing Islamic persecution in Iran. They worshipped fire in their Agari, Fire-Temple, which non-Parsees could not enter– as mysterious and fascinating to us as the local Freemason Lodge!
Parsees were an educated, Westernized, relatively affluent minority and Zoroashtrianism was a unique faith, ethnically based; indeed many Parsees did have distinctive sharp features, were larger-nosed, and lighter-skinned. One could not convert to this patrilineal faith, and the children of women who marry out of the faith were no longer considered Parsees. This, in addition, to late marriage, low marriage rates, low birth rates and low fertility (possibly influenced by inter-marriage for centuries within a limited gene pool), means the community is facing extinction, deaths each year outnumbering births.
* * *
My father watched three waves of international influence on TISCO, British managers being followed after Independence by Americans, such as J. L. Keenan, the General Manager–after whom the international, company-owned Keenan Stadium, site of enthusiastic cricket–was named. However, in the seventies, India swerved towards Russia, and Pakistan towards America (though both nations were technically “non-aligned”).
And so Russians began to show up, giant hulking men, blue-eyed and blonde, passionate about basketball, to which they challenged the town. The community gathered every evening at the United Club, subsidized by the company for its employees, to watch their sleight of hand and wizardry, and cheered, even when, inevitably, the Russians won. “It’s because they are seven feet tall,” we explained, though our dazzled eyes probably added some inches.
* * *
TISCO’s benevolent management practices were influenced by Xavier Labour Relations Institute, across town, a business school run by liberal, fairly radical American Jesuits (my father taught there after he retired from TISCO). My father and other executives were sent to study the management culture and technology at steel companies in Pittsburgh, Britian, Europe and Japan, with TISCO adapting what was practicable, sometimes even going further.
They ran a state-of-the art hospital, Tata Main Hospital, at which I was born, which provided free medical treatment to all their employees and their families, and free medical treatment for life to any one who had worked for TISCO for 25 years. Retirees frequently came down to Jamshedpur from Bombay, or Bangalore for surgery or chemotherapy.
Russi Modi, the Managing Director, a character, had extraordinary people skills, and prided himself on knowing the names of every employee from management to the workers manning the blast furnaces, the steno-typists, “punch operators,” and peons.
* * *
The TISCO cafeteria sold delicious food at radically subsidized prices so that every employee, no matter how straitened or debt-ridden his circumstances could have inexpensive meals at work, and take something home, and no employee family would go hungry.
We wheedled my father to bring these hot, fresh-cooked snacks home for tea, but he generally refused, too proud to be seen among the clerks, sweepers, and factory hands. No senior management went, or so he said, (though how could he have known, if he did not)? Appearance mattered in our honour- and shame-based society. Being suspected of poverty, of struggling financially, or of stinginess was as disgraceful as the fact of it.
On rare occasions, we prevailed. Setting pride aside, my father sent his peon to pick up snacks from the canteen, and came home, frowning and grumpy-faced, with banyan-leaved containers of hot bondas, pakoras, samosas, jelebis or ladoos, India’s heavenly snack foods, on which we pounced to general jubilation.
* * *
Once a year, the company whisked its entire labour force on a picnic to a “beauty spot,” like Dalma or Dimna Dam, with lunch cooked out of doors, chicken biriyani, parathas, and freshly cooked jelebis. Everyone we had heard of, we now saw: all my father’s colleagues and subordinates; the company doctors; all our school friends’ fathers, with their wives and children. Wives and children, I say, for the management was, pretty much, male; the female employees were secretaries, steno-typists, punch-operators, or telephone operators. No wonder my father snorted when I spoke of working. “Not in business,” he said.
* * *
In Jamshedpur, my father said, you were your job. People bowed and scraped to were ignored once they retired. He vowed to leave town the moment he retired, and so indeed he did–after his second retirement from Xavier Labour Relations Institute!
Tata Iron and Steel used to be the largest steel company in the British Empire, which meant something in the days when the sun did not set on; it is now the seventh largest steel producer in the world. Now and again, I see iron plates covering storm drains in Central Park, New York, or in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I lived, or here in Oxford with the legend, “Made in India,” and I smile, for I know they were almost certainly made not just in India, but in Jamshedpur.
Links to all chapters:
Chapter 1: Jamshedpur: The Steel City Where I was Born
Chapter 2: The Parks and Restaurants of my Childhood in Jamshedpur When All was Magical