Sunday, July 14, 2013

A meeting with the legendary B.G. Verghese

Some names keep floating in your mind from an early age. And even if you didn't know when you were six or seven or eight, what these names meant, you knew they related to some great people. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance. Nehru was a name I remember my father and uncle others in their group talk about – I must have been about four then or, may be, five. I still remember our maidservant, Veshu (God bless her wherever she is), in Calcutta showing me pictures in The Statesman, and pointing to the Moomins, a comic strip that was quite popular. There were several other names – Edwn Aldrin, Elvis Presley, Rajesh Khanna, Bradman – that meant something special during my formative years of childhood.

One such name was that of B.G. Verghese. I remember my brother-in-law mentioning Verghese’s name while reading The Statesman. It was probably in 1975, when Verghese received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for outstanding contribution to journalism. His name quite possibly must have cropped up when there were endless discussions at my home about the Emergency, when Verghese lost his editorship of the Hindustan Times for daring to criticise Indira Gandhi, to whom he was information advisor in the late 1960s. So, the name stuck.

Years later, when I enrolled for a course in Journalism, B.G. Verghese’s name came to the fore when A.S. Padmanabhan, who took Writing classes for us, spoke eloquently about Verghese’s thundering editorial in the Hindustan Times: Kanchenjunga, Here We come.

Years later again, two colleagues of mine presented me with Verghese’s Warrior of the Fourth Estate, a biography on Ramnath Goenka.

So, Boobli George Verghese has been a sort of constant in my life ever since I can remember. But I had never in my widest dreams thought about connecting with him. Life as they say has strange ways. When I started editing Vidura, one of the journals produced by the Press Institute of India, it suddenly occurred to me to send a soft copy to Verghese. I was more than pleasantly surprised to receive his reply, thanking me and wishing me well. I then sent him soft copies of the other journals – Grassroots and RIND Survey.

I was in seventh heaven when Verghese one day sent me an email saying he valued the contribution I was making, and editing three journals was quite creditable. I couldn’t believe that a person of his stature, former editor of the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express, and a sort of doyen in the field, could be so generous. To every email I sent him, he would respond. I found this quite remarkable, considering that most editors and journalists today hardly ever bother to reply (at least from my experience).

A few months ago, I invited Verghese to inaugurate a two-day workshop on national security in Bangalore that the Press Institute of India had organised. He had earlier spared time to send me valuable inputs regarding the subjects we had chosen for talks. Verghese agreed to come and I had his tickets booked. At last, I thought, I would be able to meet the legendary figure about whom I had heard so much since childhood. However, it was not to be. Verghese’s wife had a fall and Verghese himself was down with a bad back.

Two days before the workshop I received a call on my mobile phone. It was a stentorian voice with clear, excellent diction. He was sorry, the flight tickets would have to be cancelled, he said. I was downcast but managed to respond and wished him speedy recovery. We at the institute were all disappointed that Verghese was not coming.

Our correspondence continued. A few weeks ago I received his email saying he would be in Chennai to speak at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Triplicane Cultural Academy at the PS Senior Secondary School Dakshinamoorthy Auditorium and that he would be happy to meet me. I marked the date in my calendar and made a mental note as well.

Finally, yesterday, after his scintillating speech, I met B.G. Verghese on stage and got his book, First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India, autographed. It was an unforgettable moment. The hall by then (past 8.30 pm) was deserted except for a close friend of mine who waited patiently. Tired, after his hour-long speech and replying to questions from the audience, I sensed he wished to get back and retire for the night. I did not press for much time with him but said I’d try and meet him in Delhi when I visited next. It was a humbling experience and it struck me that for all his frailties at his age B.G. Verghese was still a giant of a man.

















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