Thursday , 17 October 2019
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To Sir, with sincerity

Heta Pandit

My hands are shaking as I light the first match and catch the trembling wick on the first oil lamp on my altar table. Yes, sadly, this is not the first time that I am sending a prayer for a departed soul, a dear friend. Yes, he had been ill for a long time and we had all seen it coming. Yet, nothing prepares you for the moment when it does happen. I read, in a shaky small voice, from the Zend Avestha, the abridged version of the entire holy book of the Zoroastrian faith. It is in a combination of the languages of Zend, Persian and Sanskrit. I do not follow each and every word of the sacred text and yet I know that my prayers, indeed our prayers, will reach their destination. We are forbidden by our faith to weep at the loss of a loved one. It is just the discarding of a body, they say. ‘The soul is immortal.’

What manner of rule is this? To weep and grieve is both natural and just. I allow the flood of tears to flow in between the words, sandwiched between shafts of memories, a flashback, a recollection. To remember is also to be natural.

My first meeting with Manoharbab was much before he became the Chief Minister of Goa. Architect and heritage activist, Dean D’Cruz was planning to make a film on the city of Panaji and had asked me to help with the interviews and production. The team, camera in hand, barged into Manoharbab’s office in Panaji without an appointment. I asked him for a few minutes of his time on camera to talk about the traffic situation. “How can we sit in the office and talk about the traffic?” he asked. He stepped out onto the street, with scooters and cars buzzing around us, he answered every single question.

Our second meeting was not a meeting at all. I had gone to visit a sick friend at the Goa Medical College and on the off chance heard that the Goa Medical College building was to be demolished. The Government of Goa, in its wisdom, was planning to build a high-rise car park in its place. Many of us were horrified and I spoke to a journalist friend about it. “Why don’t you go and speak to the CM?” sneered this journalist, famous for his links with the BJP and his cynicism. Since working with bureaucrats had brought little joy for our fledgling group, I decided to go and see Manoharbab at the Adil Shah Palace. Armed with a few photographs and very tight captions, I made a case to save the GMC building, Asia’s oldest medical college.

I was firewalled by his secretary who said: “Your meeting will depend upon whether he wants to see you.” Fair enough, I said to myself and left the sweat-dampened sheets of paper on the desk. I thought I would never hear from him but I did. I got my meeting – a patient, bemused hearing and the now all too familiar “I will get back to you within three days.” I used to live in Khorlim then and back from the Friday market, with both hands filled with groceries, I saw someone in a blue Maruti 800 giving me the royal wave. He stopped the car and asked me if I was free to meet with the consultants from Mumbai to discuss the future of the old GMC. To cut a long story short, the building was saved and became the venue for the IFFI.

We now had his ear and his attention. Manoharbab supported every idea we had. He came for the Goa Heritage Festival, the Fontainhas Festival of the Arts (where he leaned on the City Corporation to give us all the help we needed) and Goa Folk Festivals. He released my book ‘Hidden Hands: Master Builders of Goa’ and shared seats with the then chief minister, Pratapsingh Rane for the release of the book on Panaji, proudly reminding us that the event was being held at the ‘saved heritage’ building of the old GMC. His support and understanding of our concerns over several other issues was single-minded, focussed and open. If he couldn’t help us on an urban planning issue, he would mumble and say: “I can’t help you there…”

Just as I remember my first meeting with him, I also remember the last time I met him. I was in his new office to let him know that my mother was seriously ill and that I would be away from Goa for a while. He came all the way to the car to see me off and to let me know that he cared.

Manoharbab was not a man of words I dare say. Of all the many people I have met, there was only one man that I ever called “Sir”. I don’t think I will ever get that chance again.

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