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Vol. XXVIII No. 21, February 16-28, 2019

In Memoriam: George Fernandes and the Madras connect

By Sriram V

George-FernandesAnd so old George (Jaarj in Delhi parlance) is dead. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease and I am happy he is freed from its clutches. It is a merciful release to a man who was bedridden for the last several years of his life. The unsightly battle between his former wife and son on the one side and his companion on the other for control over him, even as he was unable to have a say, only made his last years most poignant.

At one time, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, he was all over the place and, what’s more, India’s firebrand. It helped of course that those were the years of labour unrest and in George Fernandes the unions found a great leader. Later, he rose to become Cabinet Minister but in my view his finest hour was already over.

The years leading to the Emergency were when he became a household name. Magazines used to feature him on their covers. And he was strongly against Indira Gandhi.

In July 1975, the LIC Building in Madras went up in flames. The fire lasted for the better part of a night and the subsequent day. The entire fire-fighting force of the city was deployed in putting out the fire and you can imagine the level of desperation when I tell you that even Cooum water was pressed into service. I remember as a nine-year old climbing up a ladder to the top level of our two-storied house in Mylapore to see the sky coloured a bright red. Madras was a city with no high-rises then and such things could be observed. Years later, it would transpire from Wikileaks that Fernandes claimed to the Americans that he and his team that was working closely with Naxalites had masterminded the fire. This was perhaps nothing more than a tall story about a multi-story for investigations revealed that the fire had broken out due to mere technical reasons.

Such claims could not have endeared him to Mrs. Gandhi and so as soon as the Emergency was declared, George Fernandes went underground. My researches for the biography of Dr. Mathuram Santhosham revealed that he surfaced in our city and first knocked at the door of the former who lived on Spur Tank road. Here he was sheltered for a while and later, when the police began to close in, was secreted away to Express Estates on Mount Road. There, in that vast campus, he remained for quite some time before resurfacing and then courting arrest somewhere else in India. His going away picture, showing him raising his handcuffed hands, will remain an everlasting memory.

In later years, George Fernandes became a familiar figure in the city as mediator between the NDA and the local parties. In this he was always closer to the DMK and most cordially detested Jayalalithaa for which attitude the latter was responsible entirely.

An interviewer once asked him as to why he was always so shabbily dressed. I too had wondered over this. Even the Bong Socialists (Chochalist in Bihari parlance) were always nattily turned out. His response was immediate – he washed and ironed his clothes himself and he invariably had no time for the latter activity. Said to be India’s best Defence Minister, he was unfortunately named in some scandal, which I now forget.

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