Malavika Sangghvi pens a tribute to city political icon Murli Deora
In the end, it all comes down to kindness. Murli Deora was one of the kindest men I’ve known, a rare attribute in these times, almost unheard of in a politician.
Back in the days when I first got to know him in the early eighties, as a rookie reporter for the now defunct Bombay Magazine, the standing joke in the edit room was that if anyone, powerful or ordinary, man or woman, old or young, advantaged or disadvantaged even began to utter a sentence about some personal or professional woe, within Murli’s earshot, he would be immediately seized upon by the politician, coaxed into revealing all, and then, before he even knew it, from that moment on his problem or woe had become that of Deora’s, no questions asked. Murli wouldn’t rest until he’d solved it.
He did this with no agenda, no thought of reward or return, mostly anonymously and often unasked. And when you reminded him or alluded to his act of altruism, he’d blush as if caught red-handed, fidget awkwardly and change the subject.
Whether it was standing by a lost and defeated Indira Gandhi in her darkest days or arranging to have a slum child operated on by a leading doctor, it was all the same.
His humanity was a palpable unceasing river. Everyone was included. No one was turned away.
Farewell with state honours
They were all there to bid Murli Deora farewell last evening at the Chandanwadi, where he was cremated with full state honours. Some like the Gandhis Sonia, Rahul, Priyanka and Robert Vadra Mukesh and Anil Ambani, Praful Patel, Prithiviraj Chavan and Piyush Goyal, and Neeraj Bajaj, sitting respectfully through the ceremony.
Murli Deora with Sonia Gandhi
Others like Nita Ambani paying her condolences at the Deora residence, and still others like PM Narendra Modi calling the Deoras on the phone to say how he would personally miss Murli and how much he regarded him. “He was a national leader,” the PM is reported to have said to Hema, “and my friend.” Only recently, the two had shared a warm exchange at the Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital launch.
The Deoras with George W Bush
They were all there, the high and mighty, the unknown and ordinary the forgotten and the friendless.
In some way, Murli Deora had touched all their lives, given them some hope, and shown them some kindness.
In the end, it all comes down to kindness. Murli Deora was easily one of the kindest men I’ve known. A rare attribute in these times, almost unheard of in a politician.
There’s a great hole in Mumbai’s heart, which you once occupied.
A sweetness and decency
Most people who are good and kind run the risk of being earnest bores. Not so Murli. Urbane, sophisticated, smart with a quick wit and easy laugh, he was an absolute riot to be with; irreverent and unassuming, he took no one seriously, least of all himself. He told the best anecdotes, was an exceptional observer of human character, loved nothing more than a great story and laughed most at himself.
Murli Deora with Rajiv Gandhi
It was easy to see why he had been such a good friend of Rajiv Gandhi: though they came from such different backgrounds, and in many ways epitomised the city’s they lived in, both of them shared a sweetness, and an untrammelled decency.
When I called on her last evening after the state funeral at Chandanwadi, Hema spoke of the many times when Murli stayed up all night worrying about the safety or health of people he hardly knew. “Even two days ago, when he could hardly speak, he would indicate to me that the night nurse should be allowed to leave early. ‘She has to travel so far by train,’ he said to me. I am privileged and humbled to have shared my life with such a man.”
Quintessentially a Mumbaikar
There will be many who will tell you of Murli’s astonishing rise in the political firmament. A young political aspirant from a middle-class Marwari family who had received a scholarship to travel to America and meet Robert Kennedy, he ascended from being one of Mumbai’s youngest mayors to a corporator, the chief of the Bombay Regional Congress Committee and a long-serving MP of the all-important South Mumbai constituency to the longest serving Union Minister for Petroleum.
Murli Deora inspecting the guard of honour
What they might not tell you was how, in many ways, he always remained an idealist, a dreamer, an optimist, someone who genuinely subscribed to the belief that politicians serve the people and must have to work for the common good; someone who, even as he rode the wave of ministerial success and the Congress era of political power, never forgot his humble roots or the city of his birth.
In many ways, Murli Deora was quintessentially a Mumbaikar. From the elegant confines of his art and book-lined home at Peddar Road to the dusty lanes of Girgaum and Walkeshwar, from windy evenings at his beloved Breach Candy Club, where he hosted some of the city’s most coveted soirees, to the back lanes of Dharavi, there was little he did not know or engage with in the city, few corners where his presence had not made a difference, few streets which he had not impacted in some way or the other.
He mixed it all up, gave of himself unstintingly and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling’s immortal words in his poem: “If, he could walk with kings nor did he lose the common touch.”
With Hema, a universe of love
No tribute to Murli would be complete without talking about Hema (in pic), his artistic bridge champion wife, who had dedicated her life to his love and care. The two, though on the surface very different, (she was soft-spoken where he was exuberant, she was calm where he was excitable, etc.) the two shared common values of grace, kindness and humanity.
The Deora family. Pics/‘Under the streetlight’ by Hema Deora
In Hema, Murli had found the perfect companion, one who understood his passion for politics, his untiring concern for people and their well-being and the many times he could not be there to spend time with his family.
With Murli, Hema created a universe of love and grace, in which their two sons, Mukul and Milind along with Milind’s wife Pooja, lived and worked in an atmosphere of support and respect, each a strong individual and yet so respectful of the others space and boundaries.
The immense love and respect she has for Murli is abundantly evident through the pages of the book she compiled of their life together ‘Under the Street Light’. “For me, Murli was a simple young man born in a traditional, middle-class Marwari family, struggling through his life while trying to make his dreams come true.
When I say dreams, it was not only political stature, but also an innate desire to go out of his way to help as many people as he could. I can vouch that he is truly a friend in need and a silent philanthropist too,” she says in its foreword.
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