Mari Marcel Thekaekara
IT IS rarely that a writer is afforded the privilege of seeing the person behind a President. In April, former President Narayanan graciously consented to give me 30 minutes of his time. So The Hindu carried what was probably his last major interview. It was less political, more personal, prompting many responses from readers moved by the intimate revelations of his childhood and youth.
The interview was a story in itself. I arrived in Delhi from Oxford, and rushed bleary eyed to meet him. His PA returned apologetically from his bedroom: "The President is really exhausted and weak. He can barely speak so I'm afraid the interview is out of the question."
I looked about to burst into tears. "I don't live in Delhi, and Tamil Nadu is far away, so if there's any hope, I'd rather wait here a few days," I ventured. The PA returned, "The President apologises for the inconvenience. He will see you tomorrow. Only half an hour, mind."
The next day, he was soft spoken, charming, and courteous. In spite of being visibly weak and tired, he talked for two hours and a half. I discovered he'd cancelled his physiotherapy session in order to keep his promise. Little things say a lot more about people than all the words in the world.
He has been admired for his political speeches, the courage he'd shown in not being a conventional President. However, the stories of his childhood humiliation, deprivation, and poverty exceeded all expectations. They were deeply moving, inspiring. I told him so. I told him I thought his story should, like Abraham Lincoln's journey from log cabin to the White House, be part of the curriculum for every Indian child. That I thought his life story would inspire Dalit children. Give them hope that there was a life for them beyond buckets and brooms. He smiled and told me I could come back. It was a good idea. I could write a book on his life, for children.
Impulsively I confided that my 89-year-old father-in-law, an ardent admirer of the President's Republic Day speeches, was in hospital with a broken hip. I wondered if the President could cheer him up with a short word. "Of course I'll have a word with him. Eighty nine is a good age." And without much ado, he did just that. Naturally, my father-in-law was honoured and delighted. It kept him going for weeks. A simple gesture from a great man.
The impression of old world graciousness and quiet inner strength stayed with me a long time. He will live in our hearts and in India's history books as one of the country's greatest presidents.
(The author is Visiting Skoll Fellow, Said Business School, Oxford University.)
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