Not being a leap year, February has only 28 days this year and hence today is considered the 122nd birth anniversary of India’s former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who was born on February 29, 1896. 2012 was a leap year and February had 29 days which prompted me to reminisce about him. I republish that piece.
Incidentally, the next leap year will be 2020.
February 29, 2012
A leap year always brings back the memories of the late Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai. He was born on February 29, 1896 and died ten months short of 100 on April 10, 1995.
By the time I came to know him he was already 88 years old. That was in 1984 when I was 23. It was not a friendship by any measure but merely a passing acquaintance. For some reason he was rather indulgent towards me which was rare because Morarjibhai was anything but indulgent. He had the reputation of being crusty,brusque and dismissive. I think it was my age that seemed to soften him.
All my meetings with Morarjibhai took place in the aftermath of the explosive assertions by the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who in his 1983 book ‘The Price of Power’ had claimed that the former Indian prime minister was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the run-up to the 1971 war with Pakistan. Hersh said Desai was paid $20,000 a year by the CIA which regarded him as one of its most important assets. Desai was furious and eventually filed a $50 million libel suit against Hersh. The case came to trial at a time when Morajibhai was 93 and could not attend.
When I first met him at his Marine Drive residence in Bombay, he was dressed in blindingly white khadi kurta and dhoti and wore a boat cap. He was leaning against a large white bolster, also upholstered in khadi. He was reading The Times of India and chewing almonds, one of his favorite snacks kept in a plate next to him. No, he did not offer me any. He later told me that he consumed a specific number everyday and could not have shared.
He turned to me only after he finished reading the editorial and flashed a very slight smile. I am not even sure if it was a smile but let’s not quibble. I knew he did not particularly relish small talk or empty pleasantries. So I got on with my interview straight away. During the course of that conversation it inevitably came to his age, great health and some, shall we say, rather peculiar habits. As he warmed up at the prospect of discussing something he liked, he suddenly joked, “You know Mr. Chhaya, I am only 22 years old, a year younger than you. You see I was born during a leap year. My birthday comes every four years.” I could see that he had told that joke many times before because his smile at the end was rather well rehearsed.
I did ask him about Hersh’s allegations. I recall him inscrutably looking me and then saying in Gujarati, “Murkhao bolya kare. (The fools keep blabbering).”
After that meeting I met Morarjibhai a few more times, but one particular encounter remains etched in my mind after a quarter century. By 1985, I had joined the Associated press (AP) as its Bombay bureau chief. The AP, Delhi, sent me a request that I should interview Desai about his “self-urine therapy.” Morarjibhai was the most high profile champion of this practice. The AP also wanted a picture of him actually drinking his urine. I could predict Morarjibhai’s reaction about the photo request and told AP, Delhi as much. For want of a better word, I said he would be pissed. But I went ahead any way.
He was quite enthusiastic talking about the benefits of consuming one’s own urine and attributed his own great health to the practice as well as almonds. (I am battling my flippant impulses very hard here). After I finished my conversation I gently broke it to him that we needed a picture to go with the story. At first, it did not even register on Morarjibhai what I was saying. So I made it clearer. Here is how I remember the rest of the conversation proceeded:
“You want a photograph of me drinking urine,” Desai said trying to process the absurd request.
“If that is possible,” said I.
“Mr. Chhaya, I drink my urine at 4 in the morning in my bathroom without my clothes,” he said both amused and outraged. “Do you expect me to be photographed in that state?”
I said no, but suggested it might help if he posed with a glass in his hand. The reason why I felt he was indulgent towards me became obvious at that point. A former prime minister of the world’s largest democracy might have legitimately taken umbrage at the request. To his credit he did not and said, “I am not an actor who poses. For that, go to Dilip Kumar (widely regarded as one of India’s greatest actors).”
We both laughed. That day for some reason he had a couple of extra almonds in his plate. He promptly offered me precisely one. That’s where it ended.