There was a hint of amusement, even mischief in his eyes, as we met in 1997. That is, nearly two decades after he was Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This time he was President of India. "I am happy to see you," he said, "but I do miss the excitement of our campus encounters." A reference to the dharnas, protests marches, and other annoyances my friends and I had subjected him to. "Those were some meetings," he said, smiling. "It could be arranged," I said and K.R. Narayanan laughed. "No, I'm too old for that now. But those were heady days and good memories."
About 20 years ago, as VC, he read a few of us the riot act in his room. As always, with great gentleness and good humour. "It was easier dealing with the Gang of Four," the former Ambassador to China told us. "You fellows are really troublesome." But he never lost his shirt and could always see the point of view of those disagreeing with him. He never lost his good humour either. Over a decade later, when I phoned asking him to write a piece for Blitz where I was then working, he recognised my name instantly. He had just been Minister of State for Science and Technology in the Rajiv Gandhi government. "I'm flattered you've not forgotten me," I said. "You shouldn't be," he replied. "You fellows were such a nuisance. How could I ever forget you?"
I asked him whether that meant he would write the piece for us. "Do you mean I have a choice?" he laughed. And wrote it.
Ten years after that, I wrote about him. That was when he gave the finest speech ever made by a Head of State in independent India, on the eve of Republic Day. This was at a time when the glow of neo-liberalism was at its brightest. India was Shining in the media, long before a bunch of hacks coined that silly phrase. While editors and columnists sang hosannas to the brave new world, the resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan showed he had not lost his connection with ordinary people. Many lines from that speech were memorable:
"It seems, in the social realm, some kind of a counter revolution is taking place in India ... as a society, we are becoming increasingly insensitive and callous."
"The unabashed vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the noveau riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages, while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water."
"There is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, erupting often in violent forms... "
"Our giant factories rise from squalor, our satellites shoot up from the midst of the hovels of the poor... "
"What one finds disconcerting is the absence of even political rhetoric on these social ills."
"... our greatest national drawback [is] the status of our women, and our greatest national shame, the condition of the dalits... "
2000: The President speaks
Even those sections of the Indian press that had always carried the full text of the President's speech avoided that one. Some carried four or five inches in single column. Some skipped it altogether. One wrote an editorial attacking it. His speech, it jeered, had "all the usual lamentations... " And it advised him to dump compassion. "There is an Indian market, a market not yet fully free in a democracy. But the state has not fully come to terms with the bazaar. For that we need a statesman with iron in the soul."
Four years after he made that brilliant speech, Indian voters showed they were much closer to his way of thinking. They dumped one of the worst governments this country had ever suffered.
Whether it was on the Centre trying to dislodge State governments of a different political hue, or on the ghoulish conduct of the Modi regime in Gujarat, Narayanan told the Union government where it got off. But always working within constitutional limits. This President was no rubber stamp. He was no rubberneck, either, being scrupulous and ethical.
Though he never once mentioned it, just being who and what he was, achieving all he did, trashed the worst stereotypes of caste. This Dalit from Kerala could not find a full time job there despite being a top student, a gold medallist from the University College, Trivandrum. The discrimination he faced in the era of the Travancore royalty was vile and humiliating. Yet, the man who refused to accept his degree certificate in protest would go on to being one of India's finest diplomats and its best President ever. The Merchants of Merit (aka caste hatred) skipped mention of him in their diatribes. For his very existence and stature destroyed their real argument. A casteist denunciation of Dalits as unfit for higher things.
Full of grace
Narayanan brought grace and distinction to all that he did. Whether as a diplomat, or as a vice chancellor and intellectual. As a minister, or as President of India. His knowledge was great. So was his commitment to principle. He had opposed the gutting of the Indian Patents Act as an MP and as a Minister. He did not dump those beliefs on getting into high office.
I did not realise when meeting him at Outlook magazine's 10th anniversary function that it would be our last encounter. He was, of course, much frailer. But he still had the same smile, the same gentle humour, and generosity.
As years ago when he had responded to my inscription in the copy of my book that I gave him. That read: "For my old Vice Chancellor: in the admittedly faint hope of persuading him my days on campus were not entirely wasted." As he said in reply, he never thought those days were wasted. Just exciting.