Amar Singh and his unusual generosity, writes Karan Thapar
It’s a dreadful cliché but wise in its warning which, I believe, applies to all of us — never judge a book by its cover. If I had a rupee for every time it’s been said to me, I would have been a rich man. I know it’s not right but I can’t help form an opinion on the basis of how people look, dress, talk and conduct themselves. Accents trigger an immediate response and it’s usually unfavourable. Fortunately, there are several occasions when I’ve realised my mistake and atoned. That lesson lies at the heart of the story I want to recount.
I wasn’t impressed when I first met Amar Singh. He didn’t strike me as the sort I would get on with. I found his manner disconcerting, his accent hard to follow and his smile too broad. How wrong I was. There are few people who have been of greater help and more generous.
An interview in the first episode of Eyewitness, a video magazine I edited in 1991, had upset then prime minister Chandra Shekhar. He thought the questions frivolous and offensive. Asked why he looked unkempt, wore crushed dhotis while his hair was often uncombed, he snarled.
Savyasaachi Jain, who did the interview, pointed out this wasn’t in keeping with Indian tradition. Our mothers send their sons forth with well-scrubbed faces, kohl in their eyes, wearing well-pressed clothes. Chandra Shekhar was more like a hippie. No Indian prime minister has been questioned in this way and while it was done tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Chandra Shekhar didn’t see the fun side of it.
Now the interview was recorded in February and by June, Chandra Shekhar was out of power. His prime ministership only lasted seven months. Three weeks later Amar Singh rang. “Do you want to make up with Chandra Shekhar or do you propose to be misunderstood for life?” There was a chuckle in his voice but he was dead serious. “Why don’t you accompany me on Sunday morning to his residence? You should get to know him. You’ll be surprised by the man you discover.” I was taken aback. This wasn’t what I expected but I readily agreed. My memory of what followed is coloured by the relationship with Chandra Shekhar that Amar Singh made possible. We became friends. He gave me many interviews and always spoke candidly, bravely, even provocatively.
However, I digress. Amar Singh asked me to meet him that Sunday at 9.30 am at Chandra Shekhar’s South Avenue Lane residence. When I arrived, he was standing in the front garden with Amitabh Bachchan. He later confided he had just taken the actor to meet the former prime minister. A few months earlier, on Amar Singh’s introduction, Chandra Shekhar had sorted out Bachchan’s tax problems. Bachchan now wanted to thank him.
“Come along,” Amar Singh said, “you’re next”. With his hand on my shoulder, he walked me into Chandra Shekhar’s study. I was 36 and a little apprehensive but I need not have been. Chandra Shekhar greeted me with a loud guffaw. Or was it the roar of an old lion? Amar Singh responded with a cheesy grin. The three of us chatted over cups of tea. Chandra Shekhar was in no hurry to end the meeting. Amar Singh was clearly pleased with the way it was going.
When I got up to leave and shook hands, Chandra Shekhar said: “Keep in touch”. As we walked out of the door Amar Singh added, “He means it”. Amar Singh was right.
I can’t think of any other person who would have taken upon himself the task of repairing my relationship with Chandra Shekhar. There was nothing in it for Amar Singh. In fact, I never found out why he did it but he was visibly pleased each time I repeated the story.
Sadly, we did not meet in the last few years. Our paths did not cross. But I’ll always remember him as a kind man who went out of his way to help virtual strangers. That’s a quality that can forgive a lot of faults.