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Our Cobra hero

Kumkum Chadha profilesformer cabinet minister Vasant Sathe narrating how he had Mrs Indira Gandhi blushing once.

india Updated:

There is one thing for which Vasant Sathe can claim credit: making Indira Gandhi blush. Mrs G was then PM and Sathe a member of her Cabinet. The story, confirmed by Sathe, goes something like this. Mrs Gandhi was presiding over a cultural programme. As I&B Minister, Sathe was playing host. An accomplished singer himself, the minister got on the stage and doing what would today be called an ‘item number’ — namely a Marathi laavani. Not only did Sathe make it known that he was singing it for her, but he did not take his eyes off Mrs Gandhi even for a split second: “Sundaramanaa, madhe bhar li… (O beautiful, you reside in my heart). Apart from being adept in Marathi, she understood the underlying nuances of a laavani — its sensual overtones. Sathe danced as he sang while Mrs Gandhi turned crimson.

That Sathe’s expertise in laavani has something to do with his music teacher giving up on training the young Vasant in classical music is a different story. Every evening when the teacher would land up at Sathe’s house, both his brother Madhav and he would play pranks till the master threw up his hands. But he did not leave without presenting a set of laavani records for Sathe, stating that they would be his “best teacher”.

The reason Sathe learnt yoga was because the teacher, Bhaiya Sahib Lokras, used to feed the two brothers dry fruits before putting them through the rigour of headstands and other aasanas. On their way back home, the Sathe brothers would collect scorpions. Once when a snake charmer came calling, he picked up his cobra and ran with it. The man panicked and it was not until he promised to make the snakes dance at their doorstep daily without charging a paisa that Vasant returned the reptile. Within the first year of college, Sathe earned the name ‘Cobra hero’.

A student once called up the fire brigade when confronted with a cobra. Sathe swung into action. He took a hockey stick and swung it down on the cobra’s head. Instantly, he got his new name.

Later in university, Sathe captained the boxing team. Apart from winning trophies, he was hauled up in court for breaking a few ribs and disfiguring faces. The vice-chancellor banned the sport after Sathe smashed an opponent’s chin.

Very particular about the clothes he wore, Sathe was the only one in the hostel who wore a dressing gown to match his nightwear. For many years his favourite remained a three-piece parrot green suit. Had it not been his urge to get a new one, he would perhaps have worn that suit while taking his oath as a minister at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But even the “subdued brown” he wore made his Cabinet colleagues in their white khadi sit up. There was ‘Bapu’ (Sathe) in a three-piece with a neck-tie. For his 80th birthday two years ago, though, Sathe neither wanted a parrot-green nor a subdued brown three-piece. He was content in his ‘double breasted coat’.

Email Kumkum Chadha: kumkum@hindustantimes.com