It was a funeral procession with a difference. It was also one that changed communication whizkid Sam Pitroda’s course of life. On the bier were dead phones that Delhiites were carrying in a procession to drive home the point that they needed to be restored to life. The scene moved Pitroda and he vowed, “I will return and give Delhi its lifeline.” He returned from the US to give his country a telecommunication network that worked. An old hand at telecom technology, Pitroda is reported to have invented the electronic dairy way back in 1975.
Pitroda’s ‘India break’ was thanks to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He was handpicked to steer India’s telecom revolution. The fact that Pitroda worked for Rs 1 a month made him suspect in both bureaucratic and political circles. But he says that like Rajiv Gandhi, he was smitten by “India and the romance of building it”.
It was in 1990 that he was stopped in his tracks by a heart attack, followed by bankruptcy. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination a year later forced him to return to the US. Two years ago, he had his second bypass surgery, having earlier also battled cancer. None of this has dampened his spirit and he is now back again as head of the National Knowledge Commission — this time handpicked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Born in Orissa to Gujarati parents, he was puzzled one day as to why his father kept insisting that he shower in the evening, a custom when a family member passed on. But there were no sign of death except for the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. But he was no relation of Pitroda. It was much later that he fathomed that his father, like many others, mourned Gandhi’s death like one would a parent’s.
Originally named Satyanarain, this changed to Sam in the US. His marriage to Anu created a furore on grounds of caste. “She is a high-caste Brahmin and I am a lower-caste carpenter; she is snow white and I am dark,” says Pitroda, whose wedding was nothing short of comic.
As agreed, he used his last penny to send her a return ticket from India. He figured that the money for the marriage could come from the refund of the return passage. But Anu lost the ticket and he did not know how to tell her that he was broke.
Then, Anu wanted an Indian wedding with a priest, sacred fire and, of course, sweets thrown in. An Indian professor doubled up for the priest and while shopping for gulab jamuns, they forgot to buy wood. All they could gather in the last minute were twigs covered with snow, which, of course, were impossible to light. So their marriage was solemnised around smoke. The gulab jamuns were rocks of ice and several hairdryers were used to thaw them. The silver lining: TV networks covered the ‘Indian’ wedding.