I am a huge fan of Mr. Gandhi’s; and the circumstances that preceded my meeting with him and the meeting itself, are very precious to me.
There are some people you meet who…no, that’s not right. Start over.
There are some pieces you write which immediately…no, no, that’s not right either.
By serendipitous providence, you sometimes stumble by chance into a situation with someone…no. God save me. I can’t write anymore. Drat that man. Fine. I’ll do it another way.
Do you like chocolate? I do. Always have, even as a young boy. When I was given a bar, I finished it in quick, large bites. I have always been annoyed by the kids who saved their chocolate bars for ages, neither eating it nor giving it away. I understand them now.
You see, I met him sometime in January 2013, after a few brief email exchanges. I have wanted to write about the meeting for the longest time, but I found myself savouring the memory like that extremely annoying kid with the chocolate bar. What if I finish it too soon? What if it doesn’t turn out to be as much fun as I’d hoped? What if I botch it or drop it? What if I’ve left it secreted for too long and now can’t get all of it? I’m still wary about how this is going to shape up. So I’ll take it one step at a time.
It would be safe to say, at this stage in the article, that I deeply admire Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal and grandson of two of India’s most illustrious leaders – M.K. Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari.
Now, Gopalkrishna Gandhi is not your everyday celebrity. He has been in the public eye, yes, but commands neither the blind awe that surrounds movie stars, nor the underhand sycophancy that smothers politicians. Instead, he evokes a sentiment less voluble and far rarer and subtler – genuine respect.
I followed with some interest Mr. Gandhi’s stint as Governor – his polite but unshakable differences with the Left regime in the State. At the risk of sounding flippant, I must say I found the offices he held – relatively low-profile as they were – a telling indicator to his integrity.
Since he moved to Chennai, the media has lapped up his articulacy at every available opportunity; Op-Eds, features, reminiscences, reviews, launches, tributes and everything else expressed on newsprint or behind a microphone.
Last year, when I was working on videos and packages to commemorate 373 years of Madras’ birth, he sent in this piece. Now, those who’ve followed Mr. Gandhi’s writing over the past decade wouldn’t call it his greatest literary achievement, but to me, it was the perfect example of what he exemplified – appropriateness.
And that casual, effortless appropriateness, ladies and gents, is what I aspire for. Which is why – and this is the fact I’ve been trying to establish – I am a huge fan of Mr. Gandhi’s.
And because of all the above, the circumstances that preceded my meeting with Mr. Gandhi and the meeting itself, are very precious to me.
I was working on putting together video promos for The Hindu’s literary festival, Lit for Life. I was looped in when he was asked for an appointment to shoot. Here’s an email trail. I’m A and he’s, well, G.
G: How would 11 am on Fri 24 Jan do?
A: Perfect, sir. I'll be there.
G: The address is
landmark : Singapore Shoppe
By this time, I was afflicted by pride-induced inflammation. I had, after all, exchanged no less than three emails with Gopalkrishna Gandhi. And the last one contained the words “Look forward.” It got better.
G: Sorry about this but can we shift this to 1 pm ?
A: Definitely, sir. 1 pm it is.
G: Don't get fed up with me...but I just realised we have a power cut from 12 to 2 so it had better be 2 pm....so sorry
A: No problem at all, sir. I'll be there.
That last email was a towering achievement for me. I had composed a whopper of a reply, begging him not to say “big words like sorry” (you tend to think in your mother-tongue when you’re flustered), that I was honoured to be visiting him, lauding his many accomplishments and contributions to our culture, with a special mention about his decorum. I ended up suppressing all of it into “No problem at all, sir. I’ll be there.” If he so much as doubled-clicked it, two extra paragraphs would have spilled out.
And then, on a Thursday, I saw this email on my phone. The time was 2:45 p.m.
G: Ananda are you lost or something ?
After a good 20 seconds of panicking, I went through the entire chain mail and found out what happened. I replied three minutes later -
A: Sir, a big gap in communication. In your earlier response, I picked up Friday, but didn't notice the date you put beside it. Sincere apologies. May I start now? We can shoot at 3:30. My number is 959*******.
He called. I’d saved his number a week ago. My phone rang and it said Gopalkrishna Gandhi on the screen and it was ringing loudly.
“Anand I’m so sorry about this mix-up,” he began. Now, the result of the phone call was that I grabbed my friend’s motorbike keys, slung on a big tripod and a little camera, pocketed a voice recorder and rode to Valmiki Nagar like a fugitive chased by the Interpol and his mother-in-law. But the conversation itself was vintage Anand.
Those familiar with Hindi cinema in the 80’s might remember an actor by the name Keshto Mukherjee. He had a peculiar laugh, kind of like the sound we use to mimic a gunshot, but with extra emphasis on the sh in the middle. Something like DHishhshyEh. My end of the conversation alternated between mild hyperventilation and Keshto’s laugh. And he was at his decorous best. I’d never heard a more charming apology. It was just right. Not like the overcooked ones you often hear, grossly disproportionate to the situation. And that’s the beauty of an apology. The station of the person doesn’t matter; only the situation does.
So I drove 14.5 kilometres in 20 minutes. I expected to find a really big house, with formidable security. It turned out to be an understated apartment building. The security guard was geriatric and barely awake enough to recognise who I wanted to meet. He lived on the first floor. He had neighbours.
I fixed my hair as best as I could (those who know me know it is a futile exercise), took deep breaths, switched on an acceptable accent and rang the bell. He opened the door himself! Keshto was back, but got buried in an avalanche of class. I was graciously invited in and given all the time I needed to set my stuff up.
He offered to move furniture, inquired about the lighting, politely waited while I fidgeted a little. As a videographer/interviewer, I tell you he is the best subject you could wish for. He asked me what I wanted, didn’t mind that I was vague. He let me do a sound test. He shifted in his chair when I asked him, moved his head this way and that when I told him to. Took only half a minute to begin, and wrapped up the sound bite in two minutes.
He filled silences that make visitors uncomfortable. He spoke with me as though I were an old acquaintance. Marvelled at how quickly I got there; inquired about my work. Then his wife, the lovely Mrs. Tara Gandhi, walked in. Again, graciousness. He introduces me to her, I smile and nod, all the while packing my stuff as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, but I was loath to leave.
Then the lady said, as she would with any visitor, “Coffee?” Like a complete ass, I dropped my equipment and said, “That would be lovely, maám.” And just like that, I was going to have coffee with Gopalkrishna Gandhi.
There is one awkward second, where I try to decide where to sit. He points me to a chair. I sit down and we talk about dates; when the fest opens in Delhi, when in Chennai, and so on.
It struck me that there was no cook or other house help in that apartment, which meant Taraji would have to make the coffee herself. I’d gone and done it now; taken up a polite but perfunctory offer. So much for leaving a pleasant impression. I’ll just gulp down the beverage, apologise and run.
The second I saw her make towards the drawing room, a tray in her hands, I apologised, “I’m sorry for the bother, sir. I run out of civility when there’s coffee to be had.”
And he said something that would make me the bane of every future host – “Not at all. To refuse coffee is uncivil.” Taraji had done one better. She brought coffee for all three of us.
She folded one leg under her and sat on the sofa; he cupped his cup and took a gentle sip; I blew into my cup and let the steam mist over my glasses. There was no talking for the next few minutes. I had this line in my head, a carefully constructed compliment, which I had planned to offer when I met him. I decided to shut up and enjoy the coffee, which was mild and delicious.
In a parallel universe, I finished the coffee, left, and went on with the rest of my life.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)