What do you remember about your childhood years in Calcutta?
I was born in Calcutta in 1935 and grew up in Bengal. Sadly those were different times, and until the age of nine, we were discouraged from playing with Indian children. An English nanny brought me up, and I saw more of her than I did of my mother or father. We were also discouraged from speaking either in Hindi or Bengali. I was sent to a British boarding school in Darjeeling when I was about five. My mother would come up to meet me twice during a term; then we would go and stay in the neighbouring tea estate, which was owned by my father’s company.
What are your recollections of your years in the Darjeeling school?
Initially, I would cry and did not like leaving home. However, within a short time, I adjusted to the school life and started enjoying it so much so that I would not even miss home. Those days in Darjeeling left me free to do what I liked. And what I liked most was to play marbles. I had collected a box full of colourful marbles.
It must have been a huge change to go back to England?
The focus at that time in the British school system was to turn students into gentlemen. I regularly and religiously visited the church in England. I was very good with languages and learned both Latin and Greek. I also studied theology and history. I had then nurtured a desire to become a priest. Ironically, beer too became my weakness, so much so that I would often entice my fellow students to accompany me to pubs. Incidentally, I also enjoyed the company of women. So, beer and women stood in my way of becoming a priest.
So, will it be correct to say that the Church’s loss was a big gain for journalism?
You have covered and uncovered some of the most historic events in India. Which of these would you rate as the most emotionally draining?
The Bhopal gas tragedy was most upsetting because it was not a natural calamity but a man-made disaster. It showed in all its nakedness the seamy side of the business world. Human lives were less important to many people than their political and commercial interests.
The other was the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Unfortunately, at that time I was in Mussoorie with Princess Anne who was visiting the Tibetan School there. The Ayodhya tragedy too brought me much grief since it was contrary to the secular spirit and ethos that India had stood for.
The Emergency wasn’t a great time for your either…
Emergency was the darkest period in the annals of Indian parliamentary democracy and I did not feel shy of calling a spade a spade. I was about to be arrested but providentially escaped. I heard it from Inder Gujral that a man in Indira Gandhi’s darbar wanted to ‘take my trousers down, give me a good beating and arrest me.’ I subsequently recorded all this in a book. The provocation was a canard that the BBC had reported the resignation of Jagjivan Ram, which in reality we had not. It was Gujral who thus saved me.
How were your personal equations with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and now Manmohan Singh? Whom do you rate as the best PM?
Even though I had interviewed Indira Gandhi on numerous occasions, I would not say that I had a close relationship with her. However, after what turned out to be my last interview with her, she became very informal. She asked me to switch off my dictaphone and then wanted to know my frank opinion about what was happening in the country. That was the only time she was friendly and informal.
Rajiv Gandhi was always friendly and amiable. I liked him as a person. I also like Manmohan Singh. I have known Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a very long time and have been fortunate to interview him on many occasion I would not like to answer as to which of them was the best PM. It will be unfair to compare vastly varying situations. Each era is different and a comparison will not be fair.
How intense is your belief in karma? How do its complexities dovetail with your Anglican beliefs?
I am a regular worshipper at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in Delhi. Yet, I very much believe in karma. I also believe in rebirth; where we will be born again will be determined by our karmas.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based author and senior freelance journalist