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Get well soon, Mr Mahajan

It took me a few years to get to know Mr Mahajan, as I then called him. But from a distance I found him a bundle of delightful contradictions, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2006 23:58 IST

It was raining when I first met Pramod Mahajan. It was chilly too. We were sheltering under a small awning outside the FICCI Auditorium. The rain was beating down on me.

Pramod was talking passionately when, suddenly, he grabbed me by both shoulders and swivelled me around. Before I realised what was happening we had traded places. I was under the awning. Pramod had placed himself in the rain. Of course, he continued speaking.

Such gestures are typical of him. He performs them without fuss, almost unobtrusively.

It took me a few years to get to know Mr Mahajan, as I then called him. But from a distance I found him a bundle of delightful contradictions. Gregarious in company but shy and reticent talking about himself. Devil-may-care in his attitude yet sensitive and thoughtful about others. Proud but never vain. Brave yet easily hurt.

I’m not sure how it happened but I began inviting him to inaugural episodes of our programmes and he always accepted. I looked upon him as a good luck charm. He liked being the first guest.

But there was an occasion when things went horribly wrong. Our little company, ITV, was preparing to launch The Big Question on Doordarshan. It was our first sponsored programme and a huge gamble. We were very nervous.

At the time Pramod was perhaps the most talked about minister in government. Madhu Sharma’s screaming allegations, carried live by television, had made him famous. When he accepted Pramod said that he would prefer not to talk about the Shivani Bhatnagar affair. “Think about it” he explained, “what can I say?” He had a point except it contradicted my need of him.

I hate to admit I broke my promise. I didn’t raise the issue myself but let a member of the audience do so. Pramod took it on the chin. Without blushing or stammering he answered with conviction and candour. But he was upset. Actually, he felt let down.

Three hours later he rang. It was past 10 at night. He sounded subdued. He asked me to come over and with trepidation I did. As I drove to his Safdarjung Road residence I feared he might insist on changes in the programme or else stop its broadcast. If that’s what he wanted, what would I do?

Pramod was unhappy but he wasn’t angry. Actually, his cold, distant manner and his careful, measured speech were far more unnerving. I could have handled wrath. This display of aloofness and indifference shook me.

It lasted twenty minutes. All the while I tried to assuage and appease. Pramod listened in silence. But when I gave up, fearing our relationship was over, he suddenly smiled. Then he laughed. He put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the gate.

“Forget it,” he said. His manner had changed. “These things happen.” My relief was evident but before I could speak he put his finger to my lips. “Bus, ab jhoot math bolo.” Then he added, “Don’t forget to invite me to your next programme.”

When I wrote to thank Mr Mahajan he replied insisting that henceforth I should call him Pramod. I still have his letter, written in his careful, small, deliberate handwriting. Like its author it’s self-contained. But I never called him Pramod. And, to be honest, he didn’t insist. We remained Pramodji and Karan. Today is the first time I’m using his name.

Exactly a week before his tragic shooting he gave me another interview. He wasn’t keen to do so -- not that he didn’t want to, he assured me, but because there was no time. I insisted. I wrote, I rang, I left messages and I sent faxes. I cajoled and argued.

When eventually he phoned from Assam, where he was, to accept he commented, “Tumna nahin manoge aur mein na nahin kahe sakta.”

It turned out to be the best interview he’s done. I tried to cross-question him, embarrass him, trip him, but he played a dead straight bat. I then tried interrupting. He interrupted back. Yet he had all the answers and got the better of me.

The night it was broadcast he rang. “Khushho Pramodji?” I asked. “Mujhe teri bimari ho gaye hei,” he replied.

Kya matlab?”

Meine interrupt karna seekh liya,” he laughed. “Tujheto bolne nahin diya.”

Get well soon, Mr Mahajan. When we meet I promise to call you Pramod. Oh yes, and I’ll do the talking at the next interview!