It was October 1990.Still hot and muggy in Kolkata even at 9 am in the morning.Perhaps it was a holiday or I would have been in school.I was exactly 14 years old then.My house was on the way to the airport, the name of the road aptly referred to as VIP Road even though formally it is named after Kazi Nazrul Islam, the legendary poet.Living on that road gave me the chance to see quite a few important people pass by.
I remember that morning well, for a 14-year-old fan of Mahatma Gandhi, the best thing next to laying eyes on the Mahatma was about to happen- a glimpse of Nelson Mandela who was visiting Kolkata.I perhaps stood for an hour behind the bamboo barricade, which had been erected though the entire stretch that his motorcade was to pass, along with thousands others, to catch a glimpse.When his car passed by I saw his face, radiant and smiling and engaging with the people of Kolkata.These were not the eyes of a politician scanning a crowd and calculating its political potential but that of a man simply happy to engage with a world that he chose to treat with compassion and love far greater than had been granted to him.
This was barely six months after his release from prison and part of his world tour to mobilize international support for a final push to end apartheid.People of his stature rarely visit Kolkata anymore.Kolkata has lost two powerful magnets which used to pull global giants there, Mother Teresa and Satyajit Ray, and what remains is a shrill and vindictive politician at the helm.The next year I was at the same Eden Gardens Stadium which had hosted a huge public reception for Mandela, to watch the South African Cricket Team come back to international cricket.As the crowd roared when Clive Rice ran up to deliver the first ball I said a silent thank you to Mandela. As a die-hard cricket fan in those days the biggest collateral damage of apartheid for me then was the exclusion of an exciting team like South Africa from the game.
Undoubtedly his obituaries are being fine tuned and when the inevitable happens we will see tributes whose wisdom and eloquence will move us deeply and honor the man as best as possible.But what will happen after that? Rajmohan Gandhi writes with great erudition in Outlook Magazine,”Let us not fix a halo over Mandela’s head. To make a saint of a supremely cerebral man does no credit either to sagacity or cleverness. Let us see in him, rather, the possibility of moral successes through intelligent action and the breakthroughs for intelligence in ethical choices.” This saves me the trouble of defining Mandelas legacy, a task I am completely under qualified and under-read to attempt.
Firstly I am really struck by the strength of his constitution.Once a friend told me if you want to love long become a communist, citing Deng Xiaoping and Jyoti Basu as examples.While that may have been a joke, I cannot help but wonder what kind of mental and physical fortitude Mandela possesses. During my 5 year stint in Africa I learnt that racism can also be about a brown man discriminating against a black man. So when I hear my friends who have lived in Zimbabwe recount first hand horrors of life under Robert Mugabe, one cannot help but wonder at what it took Mandela to choose a path of reconciliation with his oppressors rather than that of confrontation.
That Mandela and his life holds lessons for everybody is pretty obvious.Winds of change are blowing in many countries, from Burma to Egypt.The people of Egypt have chosen to back a military coup instead of more long-term measures.To me it represents an impatience that is the hallmark of our times.Mandela spent 27 years in jail and his introspection led him to act the way he did when he was released and became President.The South African experiment with reconciliation and the Indian experiment with a secular democracy remain the two most daring experiments whose results will take a long to become clear and even longer to understand.
Mandela will not be around forever but it is fortunate that people like him appear and make casting a vote in an election a deep moral question rather than just a matter of linking it to possible GDP growth rates.I have seen two films about Mandela, Goodbye Bafana and Invictus and a few others about South Africa during and after apartheid. These films as well as what I know of his life seem to suggest that he looked very far into the future and made his actions much larger than himself.We demand democracy but use it to play,” Whats in it for me?” games every time there is an election.Mandela teaches us to be patient and dig deeper.
The man will become an idea.It is up to us what we do with it.