New Delhi, Sep 1 (PTI) It was the 1980s and Pranab Mukherjee, then a minister in the Indira Gandhi cabinet, had been wearing the same shirt for three consecutive days until the prime minister herself pointed it out amusingly.
Indira Gandhi not just moulded Mukherjee politically but also introduced him to the 'lifestyle' of being a politician in the capital, says his long-time friend and journalist Jayanta Ghoshal.
'Indira Gandhi used to love him. She once asked him why he hadn't changed his shirt in three days, and when Pranab babu told his wife Suvra Mukherjee about the conversation, she felt vindicated about her complaints that he didn't have a dressing sense. His wife has recounted this incident in her book, 'Indira Gandhi in my Eyes',' says Ghoshal.
Mukherjee, the 13th President of India, died at the Army's Research and Referral Hospital here on Monday at the age of 84.
The journalist first met Mukherjee in 1985 at the latter's south Kolkata residence as a junior reporter in the Bengali daily 'Bartaman'.
Young and enthusiastic, Ghoshal would accompany the politician on each of his trips to various districts in West Bengal, gaining political knowledge on the way.
Ghoshal told PTI, 'Mrs Gandhi actually moulded him in areas like lifestyle.... He was from a village in West Bengal and from a family with extremely humble means.' Among other things that Mukherjee learnt to do 'the Delhi-way' was his politics.
According to Ghoshal , he was never a mass leader, but a 'Delhi-style' politician. 'He was like Chanakya — a crisis manager, a negotiator.” But, Mukherjee seemed to know where to draw the lines between adapting a new way of life and letting it detach oneself from his roots.
His Bengali-ness would come across in his everyday life, like in his newspaper preferences.
'...he would read Ananda Bazaar Patrika...that was his first choice. It didn't mean he didn't read English newspapers but he never wanted to leave his Bong identity,” Ghoshal said.
A teetotaller, Mukherjee also preferred reading Bengali novels in the quiet of his house over hobnobbing at social gatherings in the Lutyens' circle.
“In the media fraternity, we used to say that the foreign ministry was all about 'alcohol and protocol', and then he became the foreign minister...he never even drank a sip of wine.
“He was never a person who would go to fancy Delhi parties. Instead, he would come back home and read. I remember seeing a Bengali novel by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay by his bedside during a visit to his house,” Ghoshal said.
It was this knack for reading that was responsible for his 'encyclopaedic' memory, recalls Gautam Lahiri, another senior journalist who had his first interaction with Mukherjee in 1982 as a cub reporter.
Then the finance minister, Mukherjee had called up Lahiri over a news report he had filed and explained why he thought there was a problem with the story.
That was the beginning of a life-long friendship between the two.
“I used to travel with him across Bengal as a journalist, and after work we would chat about politics and history of Bengal. He was like a living Google search — he would always have a ready answer,” the journalist said.
Lahiri, who has also written a book on Mukherjee's five-decade long political career, said he, by nature, was a teacher.
'If you asked him a genuine question, then he would reply with all details and perspective, just like a teacher would teach a classroom,” he said.
Lahiri's last conversation with Mukherjee was earlier this year, when the latter was planning a trip to Bangladesh to visit the ancestral homes of freedom fighters of Bengal. PTI TRS SMN SMN