India’s tallest statesman, a towering personality with a vision, an inspiration for all…these and many more epithets are being used to describe the universally admired former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As TV anchors delve into the past to relate interesting and memorable anecdotes about the former Prime Minister, I too recall the moment when he had walked into the Indraprastha College for women in Delhi University many moons ago, on a special occasion where I was an undergraduate student.
The year was 1997 right after his short stint as Prime Minister in 1996. The college premises was cordoned off a day before and strong security checks were in place. We were not officially told till the last minute about the chief guest but there was a buzz that none other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee was supposed to come. As any eighteen year old, I wasn’t much looking forward to another long lecture from a dignitary but did want to catch a glimpse of him, knowing him to be a speaker par excellence and a striking personality. He was on time, a tall man accompanied by security staff and bodyguards who kept a strong vigil. We were enamoured by his entourage and struck by the aura that surrounded him. We expected it to be another one of those boring speeches but it started off on such a light-hearted note that from that moment on all of us heard him out.
His opening line tickled us all when he said with all his famous pauses, “I’m standing here in front of you all and feeling nervous in a women’s college”. Needless to say, we burst out laughing and from there on our minds didn’t wander as we heard this great orator talk to us in a candid, friendly manner. He was clad in his trademark dhoti, spoke slowly but with a flourish, paused a lot but surprisingly, was never boring. I do remember him telling us something about how a great future lay ahead of us, how it was great to be young and why it was important to work hard.
His remarkable wit was at its best and he would throw in a couplet every now and then, peppering his speech with humour. Looking back, I realise how talented an orator he was. He had tailored his speech to appeal to the young and knew how to keep us engrossed. I now wish I had paid greater attention to have recalled the entire speech later, but I did retain what mattered. Being a dog lover I was also busy watching what the sniffer dogs accompanying his security guards were up to while I listened to his speech.
I was aware of his importance as a political figure then but gave it only as much thought as any teenager would in those days. However, I did realise it was an extraordinary encounter which I would cherish for many years to come. My brief brush with Atal ji was a brag-worthy incident which featured in my conversations those days.
Today, as he bids his final goodbye, I feel fortunate to have ‘met’ him as I’m sure others do too whose lives he touched in various ways.