Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a most engaging smile. It seemed to cover his entire face and, at the same time, made his eyes twinkle. That gave him an appearance of playful mischief. And he didn’t hesitate to smile frequently. In fact, I always assumed he enjoyed smiling. Consequently his smile is my enduring memory of this incomparable man.
The other thing about Atalji’s smile is that it was warm and captivating, never cold or disconcerting. As the song says, it could “steal your heart away”.
Behind Atalji’s smile was a warm and generous human being. It, therefore, wasn’t deceptive. I first realised this in 1991 just after Rajiv Gandhi’s death. Eyewitness, a video magazine that I edited at the time, planned a special obituary for the assassinated former prime minister and our idea was to invite a multitude of people to share their most important memory of him. When I approached Atalji, he asked me to meet him before he made up his mind.
What followed was an extraordinary conversation and it led to a unique and touching moment in our obituary.
“I’m happy to speak about Rajiv,” Atalji began. “But I don’t want to speak as a Leader of the Opposition because that would not permit me to say what I really want to tell you. I want to speak as a human being who got to know a side of Rajiv that perhaps no one else in public life has seen. If that is okay with you I’m happy to be part of the obituary you are planning.”
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. It sounded intriguing but I needed to know more. So I asked him tell me what he wanted to say.
Apparently, during the early part of his prime ministership, Rajiv Gandhi had learnt that Atalji had a kidney problem and needed treatment. So he summoned him to the prime minister’s office in Parliament and said that he intended to make Atalji a member of the Indian delegation to the United Nations and hoped that he would accept, go to New York and get treated. And that’s what Atalji did. As he told me, this possibly saved his life and now, after Rajiv’s sudden and tragic death, he wanted to make the story public as a way of saying thank you.
Now, this is not the way politicians from opposite sides of the aisle usually speak of each other. If ever they do, it’s only in private. Atalji’s determination to do so in a public statement was not just unusual, it was truly unique. More importantly, this was heartfelt gratitude. The story had touched a deep chord within me and I knew it would have the same effect on the audience. It was likely to be the most important bit – the high point, if that’s not an inappropriate term – of the obituary.
I readily accepted. We recorded the next day and Atalji spoke exactly as he said he would. However, the impact he made was far greater than the actual content of what he had to say. His slow measured delivery and the obvious emotion that lay behind it made an unforgettable impression on everyone.
When I thanked him for this magical moment he instead thanked me for giving him the opportunity to say something that he had long wanted to express but didn’t know how to do it. He said a weight had been lifted off his mind.
Atalji’s death leaves us all poorer.