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Vol. XXIX No. 20 , February 1-15, 2020

Nani Palkhivala in Madras – II

by T.S. Gopal

(Continued from last fortnight)

Palkhivala and Cho Ramaswami

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No account of my reminiscences of Palkhivala in Madras will be complete without mentioning the mutual respect and admiration that Cho Ramaswami and he had for each other. I have the fond recollection and pride of bringing them together on a public platform for the first time. Their appearance in the same event used to attract enormous crowds. Whenever Palkhivala shared the platform with Cho, one could see that he was visibly infected by Cho’s humour. Once he invited Cho to preside over his meeting in Matunga, Bombay, and for breakfast at his home which faced the Oval maidan.

In the story of Palkhivala’s association with Madras, I regard the coming together of Cho and him as a landmark event. Palkhivala, who was well-known among the intellectual class and the upper echelons, became enormously popular among the middle class and the younger generation in Madras after Cho’s association with him, especially after a speech at Abbotsbury in which Cho presided. Of that speech, I have vivid recollections, which I will share later. Cho – I am sure everyone knows – was not only a journalist but also a film actor and a playwright.

Through his Thuglak writings, he was immensely popular with the middle class, of which Madras has always had a considerable number. The first time I got Cho to meet Palkhivala was later in the evening after the budget speech at R.R. Sabha in 1970. While making arrangements for this speech, I was exploring ways of getting the youth and the common man in Madras to attend Palkhivala’s speeches. Since Palkhivala and Cho belonged to the same profession – Cho was then the legal advisor to the TTK Group – and were deeply concerned about the welfare of the common man, I wanted them to meet and possibly come together on public platforms. Cho was at his satiric best and I believed that his immense popularity with the middle class would help attract them to Palkhivala’s speeches. A week before the speech at R.R. Sabha, on a late evening, I went to Cho’s office. It was then located in the Ananda Vikatan offices near Indian Overseas Bank’s Head Office on Mount Road. Mahendran, who later became a famous film director, was then an assistant editor of Thuglak and he was sitting at the front office.

Rather than customarily sending in my visiting card, I gave the invitation for the budget speech, asking Mahendran to inform Cho that we wanted him to attend it. Mahendran went in and after giving him the invite, came out and told me that Cho wanted to meet me. I went in and met him. He had not yet lost the hair on his body. He had also not yet adopted the familiar green attire, which became a habit in more recent times. His response impressed me, “Mr. Gopal, thank you for inviting me. Palkhivala is a great man, an icon for all of us. But my presence would only be a distraction. People should come to listen to him, not gaze at me.” But I was insistent. I assured him that I will wait for his arrival, take him to the stage and seat him away from public gaze. He attended the speech at R. R. Sabha and as quietly as he slipped in, he left after the event. Later that evening, at a dinner hosted by A. Sivasailam, the famous industrialist, I told Palkhivala about Cho’s inconspicuous visit. He immediately became curious to meet him. I then rang up Cho, and Palkhivala spoke to him on the phone and expressed a desire to meet him. It was then 9.30 p.m. Cho arrived at Sivasailam’s house by 9.45 p.m. Palkhivala and he held a conversation for a little more than half an hour. In the following issue of Thuglak, Cho carried synopses of Palkhivala’s speech at R. R. Sabha and their conversation. From that time onwards, Palkhivala became more popular among the middle class in Madras.

A speech at Abbotsbury

In 1973, I arranged Palkhivala’s speech, presided by Cho, at Abbotsbury. In the Thuglak issue immediately preceding this event, Cho had published a small note signed by him, in which he invited the readers to attend it, not because he was presiding but to hear the man who was championing the common man’s cause!

I believe that if I was invariably successful in arranging Palkhivala’s budget speeches in Madras, it was due to a divine intervention on many occasions, including the one at Abbotsbury in 1973. Palkhivala only found time to give that speech on 4 February 1973, a Sunday. But Abbotsbury was booked for a wedding on that particular Sunday. Since Cho was presiding, we could not find any other auditorium large enough for the expected crowd. I spent sleepless nights trying to work other options. A solution presented itself when my mother looked up the almanac and said that that Sunday morning was not suitable for any auspicious function and the marriage party might only arrive between 2 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. I wasted no time in seeking the person who had booked the hall for his daughter’s wedding. Fortuitously, he was the Branch Manager of ACC and Palkhivala was the Chairman of ACC!

Overwhelmed, the gentleman readily consented to let us use the hall in the morning. I assured him that the pandhakal (an auspicious pole forming part of the wedding ritual) will be protected by our volunteers and I would be happy to provide seats for him and the groom’s family at the event. It had thus happened that we not only got the venue but also got it free of cost! The Sunday arrived and the audience overflowed the hall. Many stood outside the hall, under the scorching sun to hear Cho and Palkhivala. Cho’s introductory remarks were so witty that Palkhivala said, “Rarely have I seen the Chairman outshine the speaker in advance.” This was also the occasion when Palkhivala said with a broad smile as to why he thought the organisers had invited Cho to preside, using the anecdote of a waitress in a U.S. railway restaurant, who served the customer two eggs, “in case one turned out bad.” Among the numerous people who attended the event, there were distinguished personalities such as A. Sivasailam and D.C. Kothari, well-known industrialists, J.H. Tarapore, the famous architect, Justice Narayanaswamy Mudaliar, K.S. Venkataraman I.C.S. (Retd.), M.S. Subbulakshmi and T. Sadasivam. Making arrangements for this speech, successfully despite the initial hurdle, gave me immense satisfaction as this event brought Palkhivala in close contact with the youth of Madras. He always loved and had great hopes for the younger generation of the country. As I recall those events, more memories of the 1973 Abbotsbury speech come back.

An interesting incident concerns the late J. Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. She was then a busy film star. It is well-known that she wanted to become a lawyer but circumstances led her into the film industry. She held Palkhivala in high esteem and wanted to attend the speech at Abbotsbury. Sometime before the event, she called up Cho, who was her good friend, and asked him if a seat could be reserved for her at the venue because she might arrive late. Cho asked me on her behalf but I firmly declined the request. Normally seats were not reserved for anybody and I was not willing to make an exception for Jayalalitha. But I must add that we used to have volunteers sitting in rows other than the first row, and they would give up their seats for VIPs if needed.

I also felt that a popular film actress arriving late would be an unwelcome distraction at the venue. When Cho conveyed my decision to her, she was understandably upset and did not attend the speech. This coincided with the time when she was writing some of her reminiscences as a series in Thuglak. After that unhappy incident, the series came to an abrupt end. As if he held me to blame for it, Cho said in a lighter vein, “Gopal, because of you she stopped writing her reminiscences!” Another interesting memory relating to the speech at Abbotsbury is that Palkhivala came to Madras by a Tata owned private aircraft – it was ‘Cessna’ if my recollection is correct – because his busy schedule prevented him from catching a commercial airline flight from Bombay in good time. The plane landed in Madras two hours before the event and flew back without any passenger, while Palkhivala, who later visited the Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry, went to Delhi by a commercial flight. His arrival at Madras by a private aircraft caused an interesting titbit to appear in Ananda Vikatan. Bala, who was on the editorial staff of the magazine, was a close friend of Cho. I used to chat with him while waiting to meet Cho at the Ananda Vikatan office. At Abbotsbury, while we were chatting before the speech, I said to him that Palkhivala had to arrive by a private plane. Impressed by the public adulation that he witnessed at the event, he caused a box item to appear in Ananda Vikatan that read ‘Palkhivala came by a private Tata plane especially for this speech’.

The same piece also carried a facsimile of the initials ‘NAP’ written by Palkhivala with the caption, ‘This is how he signs’. Appearing in Ananda Vikatan, which had always been quite popular among Tamil readers, was unexpected publicity for us. I sent the clippings to Palkhivala. He was pleased to see them and felt flattered like a child. Cho’s presiding over the speech at Abbotsbury and that piece in Ananda Vikatan made him a household name in Madras.

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A full house at Abbotsbury to listen to Palkhivala. Among those that can be made out are A. Sivasailam, M.S. Subbulakshmi, T. Sadasivam and Justice K.S. Venkataraman, ICS.

(To be continued next fortnight)

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