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HVK Archives: Reminiscences of days past

Reminiscences of days past - Kanara Saraswat

M. V. Kamath ()
11 November 1996

Title : Reminiscences of Days Past
Author : M. V. Kamath
Publication : Kanara Saraswat
Date : November 11, 1996

When I think of all the people I had met in the past
fifty years and my personal encounters with them in a
professional capacity, I can't help laughing at my own
self. When I was young, I am afraid I was often brash
and bold. Age, alas. does not seem to have worked any
improvement on me.

Some time in 1946 I was serving as a reporter on the
staff of the Free Press Journal. My editor, then was S.
Natarajan, son of the famous Kamakshi Natarajan, editor
of the Indian Social Reformer. It so happened that the
then Congress Government introduced a Temple Entry Bill.
Natarajan thought that I should interview Dr.B.R.Ambed-
kar, then in town, to elicit his comments.

Dr.R.R. Ambedkar, was then on the Viceroy's Executive
Council and was entitled to travel from Delhi to Bombay
in style. Two executive bogies were reserved for him
which would be tagged on to a train. In Bombay these
bogies would be parked in the Bombay Central shunting
yard. To meet Dr.Ambedkar, one had to pass the scrutiny
of two guards.

I duly presented myself to the guards, gave them my
visiting card and asked them to pass it on to the Law
Member. Dr.Ambedkar was in no mood to receive me- He
wrote a big NO on the card which came back to me.

"What does it say ?" asked the guard, who knew no Eng-
lish, I thought I would pull a fast one on him and there-
fore said : "I have been asked to come!" I was innocently
allowed in. But when I presented myself at the bogie
trouble started.

"Who are you?" demanded Dr.Ambedkar. I identified myself.
"But I told you that I don't want to see you" Dr.Ambedkar
said, his voice rising. I steeled myself. I said ;
"Sir, I have only just a couple of questions to
ask......" He cut me short. "I told you I don't want to
see you. Now get out! "

I stood my ground. I said my editor, Mr. Natarajan had
asked me .... He did not allow me to complete the sen-
tence. He told me what he thought of Mr. Natarajan of
Mr.Sadanand, the proprietor, of Nehru, and the Sardar and
Gandhi. He told me what he thought of me .... all in the
choicest Marathi abuse. It was a frightening exhibition.
I finally gathered enough courage to ask: "Can I quote
you ?". That set him off on another round of bad lan-
guage. Considerably shaken, I left. Back at the office
Mr.Natarajan was waiting for me. I recounted the entire
conversation, tears welling in my eyes. Finally he said
" And what was your response?" I said I asked Dr.Ambedkar
whether I could quote him. " And what was his reply?" He
said " Do what you like, but get out!" "Well then, said
Mr.Natarajan "quote him."

I struggled with my copy. I couldn't possibly use all
those cuss words, but my report made it plain what had

Weeks went by. The Temple Entry Bill was passed. Now
Mr.Natarajan told me once again to interview Dr.Ambedkar.
He would not take a no from me. He insisted that I and I
alone should do the follow up.

Dr. Ambedkar by then had set up the Siddharth College
which was functioning out of some army barracks in New
Marine Lines. He was conferring with the principal when I
was ushered in. He took one good look at me and splut-
tered : Aren't-you the young man who came to see me at
Bombay Central some months ago ?". I admitted to the fact
"And you wrote that nonsense about me?". I protested and
said I had his permission to quote him. "Do you know" he
said, threateningly, "I can have you thrown out of this
office ?" I kept quite. Turning to the principal, Dr.
Ambedkar said : "This young man has been impossible" or
words to dust effect. Once again he refused to give me
an interview, But at least he did not have me thrown out
nor did he abuse me.

A couple of years later I was again assigned to interview
him. This time he was staying in his own house Rajgriha
in Dadar in Bombay. The interview, surprisingly was
granted. When I was admitted to his drawing room he
seemed to be alone. I was ushered into his library where
he was sitting at his desk, deeply engrossed, with a dog
in his laps, which I thought was unusual. By now I was
well-prepared for any emotional outburst, but he was
surprisingly quiet and polite. I don't think he rec-
ognized me. Certainly he showed no sign of recognition.
He answered my queries and the interview went off well.

Some years later I met him again, this time at a small
dinner given to him and Mrs.Ambedkar at the Juhu resi-
dence of my employer, Mr.A.B.Nair-By then I had become
editor of the Free Press Bulletin and Bharat Jyoti. It
was a very select gathering and I was introduced to Dr.
Ambedkar. He had absolutely no recollection of seeing me
beforehand I had no desire to remind him of my earlier
encounters with him. He was very quiet all evening.
Later I was told that he was very ill and had accepted
dinner invitation with great reluctance.

That was the last time I saw him. I could never under-
stand his behaviour until I read Dhananjay Keer's excel-
lent biography of the, man. Writes Keer, "When he (Dr-
Ambedkar) was enraged through; his penetrating eyes
looked the bitterness of all ages and through his lips
passed the embers of an Untouchable hate. He was Jamadag-
ni....By temperament Ambedkar was cyclonic. The least
provocation he flew into anger..."

In the tranquility of my old age I can look back with a
wry smile at how Dr,Ambedkar bawled me out at Bombay
Central, but, when the event actually took place I had my
first brush with the smallness of great people.

In 1956 I was serving as Press Trust of India correspond-
ent at the United Nations when Jawaharlal Nehru came to
the States for the second time. Apart from me there were
three other Indian correspondents covering the visit. One

was Krishna Balaraman, like me U.N.-based, who worked for
The Hindu. The others were Prem Bhatia of the Statesman
and Moolgavkar of Times of India both of whom had flown
in from India.

Towards the end of the second or third day of his stay in
New York all four of us asked for a joint interview with
Nehru. He declined to give it. He was busy. he said. He
was meeting American and foreign correspondents. He told
us to see him in Washington. The same story repeated in
Washington. He was too busy to see us. Contact him once
again in New York. At New York, too, he declined to see
us much to our annoyance. All four of us were to fly with
him to Ottawa in a Canadian Air Force plane specially
sent to fetch him. There were, in all, some six people in
the Nehru entourage. In the plane we once again sought to
see him. No, he wouldn't see us. The next day at Ottawa
we four called on the Canadian Prime Minister Louis St.
Laurent. The first thing he asked us was "Well, boys,
have you seen your Prime Minister?" When all four of us
drew long faces, he said, helpfully : "Well Mr.Nehru will
be coming in any moment now. You wait in the ante-room."
Sure enough Nehru was ushered in, but before he could
even sit down, Mr.St.Laurent called us saying .. "Come in
lads, meet your Prime Minister!" "Your should have seen
Nehru's face. He looked terribly angry. It took the
Canadian Prime Minister to introduce us to our own Prim
Minister. The photographers were summoned and pictures of
us standing with the two Prime Ministers were taken. A
week later the Canadian foreign Office sent me one of the
pictures. I sent it back saying that I would appreciate
if the Canadian Prime Minister would autograph it. So he
did. In that picture I am standing next to a scowling
Nehru. That picture remains with me to this day in my
drawing room. It reminds me of the arrogance of Nehru
and his disdain to talk to his own national reporters.

Some time in the mid-sixties I was in Paris covering
Europe for The Times of India. Justice M.C.Chagla was
leader of the Indian delegation to UNESCO. He was being
replaced by Indira Gandhi who was then Information Min-
ister. As the incoming head of the delegation she gave a
farewell party to Mr.Chagla to which I was invited. I was
accompanied by my American wife, Elinor.

Elinor was an unabashed admirer of Mrs. Gandhi and they
got on very well. Later in the evening we were to go to
see a film show of President John Kennedy's last three
days under the auspices of the local American community.
Elinor asked Mrs.Gandhi whether she would care to join
us. She readily agreed. But by the time the show was
over it was nearing 11 p.m. and we hadn't eaten. Elinor
had a bright idea. She asked Mrs. Gandhi whether she
would join us for dinner at horse. But she added : "We
have only left overs!" Mrs.Gandhi was a sport. She
agreed to come and we had a rollicking time gossiping
till almost 2.30 a.m. when I finally told her that it is
time for her to retire. She said : " Are you throwing me
out?" Not at all, I said, I was doing her a favour,
considering that she was to address a meeting next morn-
ing. She told me how much she loved Paris, how much she
liked French bread etc.etc. It was a talk fest. I prom-
ised her that I would show her every nook and corner of
Paris the next time she was in. She took a promise from

Not long after she returned to India, war broke out with
Pakistan, India won, the Tashkent Agreement was signed,
Lal Babadur Shastri died suddenly and Mrs.Gandhi became
the Prime Minister. Some time later she had to visit
London when President de Gaulle of France asked her
whether she could drop by to see him. In Paris she was
staying with our Ambassador, an old friend, Nawab Ali
Yavar Jung. I and another Indian correspondent, asked to
meet her. Ambassador Jung invited us to his home. "And
now what will you do ?" Elinor asked. "I will be diplo-
matic and acknowledge Mrs.Gandhi only if she acknowledges
me" I replied. That interview was a disaster. Mrs.
Gandhi treated me as if she had never set her eyes on me
before. And I behaved as if I had never seen her either.
She was cold and distant. And I got the message. I
responded equally coldly. And this was the same lady who
was talking her head off telling me and my wife about her
domestic problems and a host of other things in a care-
free manner. But I paid her back in the same coin at
subsequent meetings. But that is another story.

In 1950 I was covering the Godse Trial and the second
Asian Relations conference in Delhi. I was present in
court the day the Judge pronounced the death sentence on
Godse. It was a historic occasion. I watched Godse
accepting the sentence without flinching and I sent a
dramatic report to my paper, the Free Press Journal. The
same report in Marathi, was reproduced in Navashakti. It
seems Godse asked for all Marathi papers to see how the
court proceedings were reported. He apparently found my
report most exciting and wrote to the editor compliment-
ing the correspondent. That was me, but Godse couldn't
have known it. When the letter was received in the Free
Press office, an assistant on Navashakti came running to
tell me that I had been given a certificate by Godse for
great reporting! Now I wish I had asked for a copy of
the report. But then, in those days we didn't have xerox-
ing facilities!

I remember another incident of that period. I was living
in what was known as Constitution House, a series of
military barracks where everybody was billeted. There
were then no five star hotels and Constitution House was
where celebrities were lodged.

One evening, having nothing particular to do, I was
sitting all by myself in the lounge when in walked a man
who, by the kind of turban that he wore,could have been
only one man: Sir C.V.Raman, India's only Nobel Prize
winner in Physics. It was a great opportunity to engage
him in conversation. Only a few days earlier I had read
a talk he had given on All India Radio in the Indian
Listener. There was something in it that wasn't quite
clear to me. To start conversation I thought I would ask
Dr. Raman whether he would care to explain it to me.

He was more than willing. He seemed delighted that I had
read his talk and soon be,was. launched on a lecture that
went on for the better part of an hour! In his excite-
ment he even dragged me to the courtyard where, picking
sonar pebbles, he discussed the structure of diamonds and
other gems! It was a fantastic solo performance. If he
had given that talk in America he would probably have
charged a thousand dollars. I got it for free. All I said
was "I don't know."

Well, all this should be enough. Never ask an old jour-
nalist to reminisce. Like Dr. Raman he would then go on
and on and on and on...!

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