Two weeks ago, while climbing up and down the Tata family tree looking for a potential successor for the billions of dollars of riches and much more in goodwill and brand equity accumulated over a century, I almost zeroed in on Bombay Dyeing’s Nusli Wadia as a leading contender. I was looking purely at bloodlines, and some references suggested that he was a close relative of Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata. I stopped short of writing this then due to a ‘generation gap’, or the lack of it, which I could not reconcile convincingly.
Given the fast-paced developments and other distractions, I put the Wadia theory on the back burner. But, with 72-year-old veteran of many corporate battles, including one with his own father, emerging as a key player worthy of being thrown out of Tata boards, some clarity could help.
The theory was that Wadia was closely related to JRD through the latter’s elder sister Sylla. There was a Wikipedia entry that suggested she was the mother of Ruttenbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit, Wadia’s maternal grandmother. Now, even some media reports have named Sylla the great grandmother of Wadia. Facts are less exciting.
There is no doubt that both Sylla and Wadia are part of the Petit family. It is also a matter of record that JRD was among the first to call a young Wadia, when his father Neville’s plan to sell off Bombay Dyeing and settle in Europe came up. “You’re not going to let him sell Bombay Dyeing, are you?” JRD is said to have asked. But, how close are they to each other in the family tree and, by extension, how close is Wadia to the Tata bloodline?
The missing ‘generation gap’ was between Sylla and her supposed daughter Ruttie, later rechristened Maryam on converting to Islam to marry her forbidden love Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Multiple accounts, including in Pakistani newspapers which hail her as the First Lady, put Ruttie’s date of birth as February 20, 1900. On the other hand, Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, father of Sylla and JRD, married Suzan Brierre, the daughter of his French tutor, in 1902. JRD himself was born in 1904. Sylla, who resembled JRD closely and shared his passion for flying, arrived a year earlier. Thus, at best, Ruttie and Sylla were contemporaries and certainly not daughter and mother. This Dawn profile says the very beautiful Ruttie was the only child of Sir Dinshaw and Lady Dinabai Petit.
The confusion could be attributed to a peculiar naming practice of the Petits, one of the foremost business families of colonial Bombay and accorded the title of Baronet by the British Crown. Unlike knighthoods — which apply to the recipient only — a baronetcy passes on. The eldest son of a baronet succeeds to a baronetcy upon his father's death, but will not be officially recognised until his name is placed on the official records. This meant every heir of Sir Dinshaw Manockjee Petit took that name, differentiated only by suffixes, second baronet, third baronet, and so on.
Going by all this, though both Sylla’s husband and Ruttie’s father went by the name Sir Dinshaw Manockjee Petit, they were different people.
A significant evidence emerges from Russi M Lala’s biography of JRD, Beyond the Last Blue Mountain. Lala, who was a trustee of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the ultimate insider, wrote that Sylla married Fali Petit, a bright law student in England. Lala has their son recounting Fali’s adventures as a student in England getting a series of tickets for traffic violations in the 1920s. As things got too hot, Fali shipped his car to India and moved back. “Meanwhile, his father died, so he became Sir Dinshaw Petit. For years, cops would go to his digs in London asking his landlady where he was,” the son told Lala. Guess what the name of the son was: Nusli. Nusli Petit.