When Nelson Mandela becomes history, there are a few in Kerala too for whom the effulgence of his personality is an inspiring memory.
Two of them, scholar and commentator Ninan Koshy and Kerala University of Health Sciences Vice-Chancellor K. Mohandas, who had the opportunity to meet the legend, have no doubt that he is one of the greatest men the world has ever seen.
“Free at Last! Free at Last,” Mandela’s declaration that reverberated in the ballroom of the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg on May 2, 1994, still resonates in Mr. Koshy’s ears.
There were distinguished guests from many parts of the world. They were there to celebrate the end of apartheid.
The African National Congress had secured a decisive victory in the first free democratic multiracial elections in the history of South Africa.
‘This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country on your own, and now with joy we can proudly proclaim from the rooftops – Free at Last! Free at Last,’ Mandela had said, recalls Mr. Koshy who was in Johannesburg as the member of a delegation led by Kenneth Kaunda, former President of Zambia, sent by the World Council of Churches.
Equally striking was his message of reconciliation even during the hour of victory, says Mr. Koshy.
For Dr. Mohandas, the meeting with Mandela was deeply moving because of the humility of the man whom he got to see while in Cape Town to attend the 175th anniversary of the University of Cape Town in 2004, representing the Universities of the Commonwealth.
“You have the name of my Guru, Mohandas Gandhi, but you look like Omar Sharif,” were the first remarks Mandela made when he was introduced to the legend.
“As it turned out, I was the only person present at that meeting, except for an old friend of his. Our conversation ranged from the state of higher education in the countries of the Commonwealth to the problems of health and healthcare delivery in India and South Africa,’’ Dr. Mohandas said.
Since he was at the forefront of the AIDS control campaign in Africa at that time, and had become a champion of the cause worldwide, he was particularly interested to know how India was coping with the pandemic.
He said he had heard a lot about Kerala, the beauty of the land, her advances in education and health, and the political experiments she had dared to venture upon.
“I had always wanted to visit Kerala. But people around me are predicting my imminent demise, denying my wish,” he said with a touch of wistfulness. He was 86 then. “I had been warned not to ask for a photo, as years of working in the chalk quarries in the Robben Island prison had left him uncomfortable with flashes of bright light. I had left my camera on the coffee table between us. As I got up to leave, he spotted the camera and smilingly asked me if I would like a photograph with him.
“His old friend, a former Cabinet Secretary, offered to take the picture. Madiba to his fellow Africans, he was indeed one of the greatest heroes that the world is likely to see for a long, long time, if ever. My hour with him in his Cape Town suburban home will remain fresh in my mind for the rest of my life,’’ signs off Dr. Mohandas.