THIS was in the late 1970s, when the government-owned Doordarshan was the only television act in town. It was during the days of terrestrial transmission and long before independent satellites freed the airwaves from state control. It was before Doordarshan had commenced its national telecast, when Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were separate centres, or kendras, with their own programmes for their respective constituency of viewers. Only once in a while did they link up to beam a nationally important programme. It was one such programme that I, just cutting my teeth in television news in Madras, was entrusted with. I was to interview the preeminent and popular expositor of the Bhagvad Gita of the time. It was a lifetime’s opportunity, a privilege, gingerly handed down to me.
A greying bearded savant, a Sanskrit scholar, a powerful orator in English, a religious rock star, Swamiji held weeks-long discourses on the Gita to which people flocked as if to a carnival. He lorded it over them as he tantalisingly revealed, verse by incremental verse, the true message of Lord Krishna in that sacred text. The Gita was as much what he, as what Lord Krishna, said it was.
This was before the Gita had become stock-in-trade for any and every aspiring godman with a smattering of Sanskrit, with attire of the right colour and flow and a generally beatific bearing. Swamiji somehow seemed to have a more original, authoritative claim to parse and interpret the text. He was the archetypal Gita messiah. A mandarin in Mandi house, the headquarters of Doordarshan in Delhi, or a Minister further up must have been one of Swamiji’s cult followers. Hence, the instruction, we surmised, for an interview with him to be quickly telecast on the national hook-up. Otherwise, it generally went against the grain of programming on Doordarshan, at least at that time, to flaunt religion on air. Secularism had not been dismissed as a pseudo value yet.
It must be clarified that interviews on Doordarshan, particularly of this command performance type featuring very important persons, followed a particular mandatory pattern: the interviewer had a preparatory meeting with the interviewee when the subject matter, which meant whatever matter the latter would like to talk about, was discussed; the interviewer then prepared a set of questions that would enable the interviewee to hold forth on all that he would like to and had it vetted by the interviewee or his secretary; and then finally the interview itself was shot as if it was impromptu, then and there. I was asked to go about it in this time-tested fashion.
I soon found myself before what then appeared to be a big, stately white bungalow (when I pass it these days, it does not look so big or stately, but then the city has grown and so have the buildings) in the affluent quarter where Swamiji stayed when he came to Madras, and was shown into his august presence. He was surrounded by male and female followers who were present without really being visible or audible, if that is possible, each of them a shadow of the master. He was seated on a low pedestal on the floor and had a small boy who looked in delicate health on his lap. I am overflowing with love for you, he told the boy as he hugged him, and continued in a mock taunting tone, But why are you so frail like that poor Jesus Christ on the cross? Doesn’t your mother give you Bournvita? You should be strong and well built, like Hanumanji. The mother, sitting solicitously by, started to say something about the boy making a fuss about eating, but her words were swept away in the gentle twitter of mirth that rippled like a wave through the room. The boy continued to stare at Swamiji in awe and reverence which was, no doubt, instilled in him by his parents and enhanced by the deliberate electric setting.
Even as I was recovering from this show of crass religious one-upmanship and wondering what impact it would have on an impressionable child’s mind, I was introduced to Swamiji as the guy from Doordarshan designated to interview him. He gave me a benign smile and asked me what I was going to ask him. That entirely depended on what he wanted to talk about, I dutifully responded, that if he would indicate the framework, I could work out some questions and send them to him. He graciously declined the offer. You can ask me anything, he said, or words to that effect, and added, pointing to his forehead, It’s all here. That was a mistake for him and a breakthrough for me.
Swamiji came to the Doordarshan studio at the appointed hour the next day for the interview, which went live on air. We did not discuss the Bhagvad Gita. We discussed whether religion divided people, buttressed the caste hierarchy, banned and banished outcastes and perpetuated the fatalism of poverty. At least, those were my questions. Swamiji’s replies were, like a literal rendering of journalism’s inverted pyramid, eloquent and elaborate to start with and proceeded to get shorter and shorter until they were reduced to a monosyllabic yes or no towards the end. When I finally broached the subject of influencing the minds of the young with misleading religious comparisons, he had had enough. Yes, yes, he exhaled in anger and exasperation, slapped the arms of his chair with his palms a couple of times, rose and strode to the exit before my colleague and friend who was producing the programme in the production control panel gave the fade-out command.
That act of brinkmanship might well have ended my career in television. As Doordarshan was besieged by phone calls and telegrams indignant about the irreverence shown to Swamiji, and as I was preparing for the worst, a countercurrent of letters from viewers in support of the programme came to my rescue. It would have been embarrassing for Mandi House to take action against me after that, so it let me be.
That child in Swamiji’s lap getting his first bitter taste of religious intolerance hopefully did not grow up into a religious bigot. There is, in any case, little in common between him and the lumpen elements who have desecrated churches in Delhi and Mumbai and other places and subjected an elderly nun in West Bengal to punitive rape. But, in hindsight, the seeds of religious chauvinism, revivalism and revisionism were being sown even from then. And now there is a proliferation of swamis and godmen to carry the work forward.
Those were also the days of dignified, respectable capitalists, as against the crony and parvenu variety that hog the limelight now—if we for a moment overlook the fact that exploitation is common and rudimentary to both varieties. Like J.R.D. Tata—the archetypal Indian capitalist. After I had interviewed him at Doordarshan Madras, I escorted him to the duty room where a cheque was waiting for him (I think VIPs got Rs.1,000 for an interview). He was surprised he was even being paid for it and preferred to pass it on to a good cause. I quickly consulted the duty manager, who suggested that the Doordarshan sports club could do with some money. Tata duly endorsed the cheque to the sports club. As he was about to leave, the conscientious young duty manager, a stickler for rules, reminded him that he had to pay the 20 paisa for the revenue stamp affixed to the receipt of the cheque. Tata quickly searched his pockets and announced that he carried no money. I assured him that I would pay the amount, surreptitiously gesticulated to the duty manager not to escalate the issue and, before any further damage could be done, hustled the VIP to his car. As he got into it, Tata turned to me smiling and said, I’ll remember, young man, that I owe you some money.
A few years later when I was in Delhi with PTI-TV, I had occasion to interview Tata again, this time in his capacity as Chairman of the Family Planning Foundation of India. The interview must have been eminently forgettable because I do not remember any of it. It must have been about the population explosion, a pet subject on Doordarshan, and the family welfare measures taken by the state in tandem with the corporate sector. Before and through the interview, Tata showed no signs of recognising me from our earlier rendezvous. Neither did I, for some reason, remind him. When it was done and we shook hands, his face crinkled into the same old smile and he said, I remember, I have to give you some money. But I’m sorry I still don’t have any money on me. I will, the next time we meet. This time I had the last word. Please don’t repay me Sir, I said. So that I can tell people that Tata owes me some money.