A Letter to the PM by Harimohan Pillai

A Letter to the PM by Harimohan Pillai

Excerpts from an artcile by  Harimohan Pillai, (RP / B. Arch. Hons., PhD Architecture)

The silver jubilee year -1976, I was in third year and it was a turning point in my life, which pulled me out of the relatively happy life in the IIT campus, insulated from social realities. My close association with NSS activities, Hindi TDS etc. (where, in those days, it was said that you have to take ‘panga’ to be in lime light and being noticed) that somehow got me a place in the reception committee of the silver jubilee celebrations along with some of my friends. Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi was to be chief guest for the silver jubilee function to be held in the Netaji Auditorium. The campus was getting ready for her visit. It is also to be noted that those were the ‘emergency’ days... ‘baatein kum, kaam jyada being the slogan pasted all over... Outside our R.P. Hall on the path leading to the institute building, on the left there was a tea shop of Nikhil Mondal, a poor young chap, almost my age. His tea shop was the favorite of RPans and RKites. On the morning of Smt. Gandhi’s arrival, as I walked to the institute, I saw Nikhil Mondol sitting and crying on the broken bench of his shop, which was demolished overnight by the police, to clean up the place and erect barricade for the PM’s entourage. I stood and watched him helplessly, a small cloud of rage welling up in my heart against the system and establishment...

The day and the evening was hectic with activities and I was lost in an effort to be close to the PM’s entourage... managing to even get some photographs taken with her around while escorting to the Netaji auditorium with Director Prof. C.S. Jha, along with my friend Pravin Jadhav and Gururaj Joshi! In the Netaji auditorium, in the break after her speech, Indiraji came out of the auditorium to the lobby, accompanied by the Prof. C.S. Jha and deans. Security around the PM those days was not as tight as these days. She was right there before me, talking to the professors as I sipped the lobby canteen tea standing in a corner. People maintained a respectable distance. I finished my tea and mustered up courage to inch towards her with the silver jubilee commemoration publication in my hand. Between the director and deans I stole my way to her with the publication and an open fountain pen and said, ‘Madam, autograph please...’ She smiled and took my pen and the book. She was short, by an inch or two, than me. I loved the feel of standing close to the Prime Minister of India, my glazed eyes staring at the famous grey stroke of hair below my eye level, as she signed with a flair, across the front page of the silver jubilee publication... Indira...Then the most unexpected happened. The pen stopped working. It was a pen with black Chinese ink in it, the one which I used for my regular sketching. It needed certain skill to keep the ink flowing. No wonder it stopped! She looked up at me, screwing up her royal nose, and said in Hindi, ‘Kaise student ho... ek accha pen nahin rakhte...’ Sorry madam... actually this is a sketching pen.’ I stuttered as the deans looked on. ‘Okay...’ She said, giving my pen to me and pulled out her fountain pen, clipped outside the neck of her blouse. My heart leapt with joy when I saw her hand continued on the page with green ink... Gandhi... What an autograph... in black and green, I thought as I literally snatched the book from her, whispering ‘Thank you, mam...’ and ran out of the lobby with the publication close to my chest... That night I sat in my room staring at the autograph. This was so easy, I thought. One more panga to take... with the PM, my adrenalin rushed as I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote a letter to her, in Hindi...

आदरणीय  इंदिराजी,

आप  आंधी  की  तरह  आती  हैं, और  तूफ़ान  की  तरह  जाती  हैं. आप  को  नहीं  मालूम  आप  के  रास्ते में  आप  क्या  क्या  तहस  नहस  करती  हुई  जाती  हैं. हमारे  हॉस्टल  R.P.हॉल  के  पास  एक  गरीब  निखिल  मोंडोल की  चाय  की  दुकान  थी  जो  आप  के  आने  की  वजह  से  पुलिस  वालों  ने  निर्दयता  से  तोड़  दी... क्या  यह  ठीक  है  की  प्रधान  मंत्री  के रास्ते  में  जो भी  आये  उसे  निर्दयता से  हटा  दिया  जाये ?

Aadarneey Indiraji,

Aap aandhi ki tarah aati hain, aur toofan ki tarah jaati hain. Aap ko nahin maloom aap ke raste mein aap kya kya tahas nahas karti hui jaati hain. Hamare hostel R.P. Hall ke paas ek garib Nikhil Mondol ki chai ki dukan thi jo aap ke aane ki vajah se pulis walon ne nirdayta se tod di... kya yah theek hai ki pradhan mantri ke raste mein job hi aaye use nirdayta se hata diya jaye?

Yours truly

Harimohan ( the one who took your autograph in black and green)

Today, thirty five years later, when I think of that day, I wonder why I did that. But then it worked! I had completely forgotten about the incident, having got busy with end semester submissions and examinations, followed by summer holidays when I went back home to work in a local architect’s office.

When I returned to the campus again in July on a rainy afternoon, as my rickshaw rolled down to R.P. Hall, Nikhil Mondol waved at me from a brand new tea shop on the same spot. So he got his shop back... I thought, while walking up to my room on first floor of C block west wing with my bags. As I struggled with the rusted lock on the door I heard boots on the stairs. Then I saw two policemen in uniform turning in to my wing. They came to me and asked, ‘Aapni... Horimohon Pillai?’ I froze and hands trembled on the lock which had finally snapped open. ‘Yess... hain... ki holo?’ I stuttered. They straightened themselves, the boots clicking, as if I was some senior officer. Very humbly one of them said, ‘Sir... aapni ektu ashben, police station?’ ‘Keno? Aami kichu kore nai...’ I was ‘shit’ scared, so to speak. ‘Naa... serious kuchu nai... aapnake aamar sahib dekhte chai...’ I hurriedly shoved my bags into the dusty room, pushing back the letters piled on the floor and locked the door to accompany my escorts. A jeep was waiting at R.P. Hall gate. As I got into the jeep with the policemen, some of my friends arriving saw me and shouted, ‘Pillai... what happened?’ ‘No... nothing, its cool...’ I shouted back and waved as the jeep drove past them. At the police station, opposite the IIT main gate, I was received warmly by the SP of Midnapore and offered seat in the office. He cleared his throat and said, ‘Mr. Harimohan, there is a problem which only you can solve.’ I sat shocked and out of my wits but said humbly, ‘What is it, sir?’ ‘You wrote a letter to Madam Prime Minister and the result is that policemen here are under suspension and they haven’t been paid salary for two months. Your complaint has been addressed to and we have re-constructed Nikhil Mondol’s tea shop. We need you to inspect the site and give a letter that you are satisfied, so that I can take care of my men’s suspension and salary...’ I felt blood surging and trembled, my mouth went dry, sweat pores opened up. All I could say was a feeble ‘Okay, sir...’ There was a sudden burst of activity and the men rushed to ready the jeep. The officer held me by my shoulder and walked with me to the jeep with a writing pad in his hand. The jeep swerved around the main gate circle and I felt like a VIP...Nikhil Mondol was all grin when he saw me with the policemen. Special chai was served to all while I inspected the shop, or rather, acted that I was inspecting, all the time trying hard to hide my fears. My friends from RP joined me and then there was celebration, after I gave the letter to the officer and they left. Nikhil Mondol cried when he related the story of how the policemen traced him out during holidays and went all out to construct a new shop for him...When I returned to my room in the evening, I found a large brown envelope lying with the bunch of mail, from the PMO! I quickly opened the envelope. On a parchment paper letterhead of the Prime Minister were typed in Hindi the following:

प्रिय  हरिमोहन ,

हमें  फक्र  है  कि हमारे  देश  में  आप  जैसे  नौजवान  हैं  जो  अपने  आस  पास  कि  खबर  रखते  हैं . आप  के  हॉस्टल  के  पास  कि  दुकान  के  बारे  में  पढ़कर  खेद  हुआ . हमने  एक्शन  ले  लिया  है .

शुभ  कामनाएं ,

Priy Harimohan,

Hamen fakr hai ki hamare desh mein aap jaise naujawan hain jo apne aas paas ki khabar rakhte hain. Aap ke hostel ke paas ki dukan ke bare mein padhkar khed hua. Hamne action le liya hai. 

Shubh kaamnayen,

Indira Gandhi

I felt goose pimples when I read the short letter followed by the familiar signature in green ink. The story didn’t end there. Next day when I went to classes, I got summons from my HOD, Prof. Muni Chakraborti. He beamed as usual at my sight and said, ‘Mmmmbaah...  I am proud of my architecture boys and the naughty theengs they do... you are specially invited by the Director for a cup of tea bhai... and I shall accompany you...’ Humming a song under his breath Prof. Muni walked with me to Director Prof. C.S. Jha’s office. I was nervous while entering the Director’s office. I had never been there. It was rare for students to walk into the Director’s office unless they were members of Gymkhana on official purpose, or summoned for some disciplinary action! Prof. Jha was serious, but complimented me with a smile and said, ‘What you did was not expected of anyone, but it did have its effect you know, especially because there is this emergency situation... The officials sometimes take a high handed approach, but a small gesture by you shook up the whole system.’ We had tea and some small talk about my career. I met Prof. Jha twenty six years later at a World Bank funding meet in Delhi... and he remembered the event.

I met Nikhil Mondol thirty three years later, just outside the IIT campus near the railway gate, where he has his small tea shop now. He hugged me and told me that the shop near RP Hall survived for fifteen years, with the income of which he got his sisters married and brother educated. Later he had to move out of the campus when IIT authorities ordered as part of campus planning and development.

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