COME THIS OCTOBER, Mirati village will go to Durga Puja without its dearest son. To the rest of India he was the history-buff president, a Bharat Ratna, a peerless trouble-shooter, a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman and the Union minister who read every file that crossed his desk, remembered the notes made and then summoned them from memory at will. But, to this little village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, he was Pranabda, kaku or dearest Poltu—a nickname used by his parents.
Pranab Mukherjee has said many times that his annual schedule would not be complete without his officiating over the annual puja in Mirati. He remembered all the times he missed it. One was in 1995; he was at the UN General Assembly. Then, in 2015, shortly after his dear wife, Suvra, passed away. And a few other times in those busy 84 years. This should serve as enough illustration of his bond with the land that he called home.
During his presidency, THE WEEK had carried a yearlong series called First Citizen, documenting the traditions of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the initiatives undertaken by Mukherjee. Frankly, I was worried if we would be able to sustain it for a year. Regular columns often run out of engaging material. But, Mukherjee’s Rashtrapati Bhavan blew the dust off so many anecdotes, artefacts and traditions that we carried the column for more than a year. On July 2, 2014, the anthology was released as a coffee table book. It was released by Karan Singh and Mukherjee graciously received the first copy.
Just as he collected facts, he collected anecdotes, too. From his voracious reading surely, but also from personal interactions. Every time I visited him at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, I would promise myself that I would leave quickly. But ever the gracious host, he would always ask, “Why are you in such a hurry?” And the chat would go on.
Resident Editor K.S. Sachidananda Murthy, then head of Manorama Music Sivaram Sreekandath and I met Mukherjee on February 15, 2017. That, perhaps, was his last official engagement with us. The president was to receive the Samavedam series produced by Manorama Music. Dr Thottam Sivakaran Namboothiri, who had recited the Samavedam for recording, was also with us. When press secretary Venu Rajamony requested Namboothiri to recite a sample for the president, Mukherjee was all ears. So, Namboothiri sat cross-legged on the sofa and recited the first verses from Purusha Suktham. I truly believe that it is this generosity with his time and support that gained him friends from every walk of life.
Mukherjee was a friend of THE WEEK and the Malayala Manorama. Indeed, he was the chief guest on the 125th anniversary of the daily newspaper on March 16, 2013. And on November 26, 2015, he received the first English copy of my father’s autobiography, The Eighth Ring, from my brother Mammen Mathew. He paid tribute to my father and quipped: “I knew K.M. Mathew since the early days of my life which is neither too long nor too short—in early 1970s.”
His regard for THE WEEK and the group was evident in the speech made while receiving First Citizen. “The last two years have been busy and eventful,” he said. “Many projects have been completed. Others are nearing completion. Many more are in the offing. I am delighted that THE WEEK has been a fellow traveller on this journey. I look forward to its continued companionship in the days to come…. The Malayala Manorama Group, with its 125 years of history, represents the best in journalism anywhere in the world. THE WEEK is a true inheritor of this great tradition.”
Thank you for opening your home and heart to us, sir. Go in peace. We know we will miss you.