Catch me if you can…

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague who hadn’t been in touch for a while called to ask how he could get in touch with Sharad Pawar.

“I have never interacted with politicians so I don’t know how to go about this. Is it easy to speak to him?”

I gave him all the numbers where he could reach Pawar and assured him that the Union Agriculture Minister was far too professional to play hard to get – unless he was genuinely busy or in the middle of some controversy and did not want to talk, setting up a meeting would not be too difficult.

“And if he doesn’t want to talk, he will not waste your time. He will tell you straight away,” I said.

But that reminded me of how difficult it always is/was to get in touch with Bal Thackeray. In one of my previous blogs I mentioned how on one occasion, he kept me calling for 12 hours and would not say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But I should have known better. For even at the best of times Thackeray was not one to make it easy for any journalist. He believed that if he did not make you work for that interview by chasing him for days, not just hours, it was not worth his while.

And even when he did give you time, I and some of my colleagues have faced occasions when he deliberately engineered overlaps – giving you an appointment at the precise moment when a more important personality was closeted with him. So you either had to cool your heels in his antechamber for hours or if you didn’t have the time, start the process of the chase all over again. There was even one occasion, I recall, when he called me and a colleague over for an interview and simply just went out to dinner that evening. I did not bother to call him back that time, I remember.

By contrast, it was easier whenever my editor wanted me to speak to Pawar. In the days before the advent of mobile phones, I remember tracking Pawar through the day on one occasion. Every time I called a particular number – his (private) home, his Vidhan Bhavan office, his official residence, his party office et al, he seemed to have just left the place.

His secretaries were always polite and helpful and I did not think they were not connecting me deliberately. At dinner time, I rang back his residence only to be told he was out to — well, what else? – dinner. “We do not expect Saheb to be back before midnight,” his secretary said.

I knew there was no point calling back again because I had already pushed the deadline – and I had wanted just a one-line reaction to a particular event. I wrote the copy with the standard, “Sharad Pawar was unavailable for comment,” and went home very dissatisfied about the unfruitful day I had had.

As I let myself into my home at midnight and passed by the hall on my way to my bedroom, the telephone rang. I wondered who might be calling at that hour, so you can imagine my shock and surprise when a gruff voice replied to my “Hello?” with simply a “Sharad Pawar.”

I almost dropped the phone in sheer disbelief, then gathered my wits about me wondering what I would say to him now that my paper was already put to bed. It was going to be awfully cumbersome making changes on the machine to dunk in his reaction.

But then he made it easier for me by saying, “I can see from the records placed before me by my secretary that you have been trying to reach me all day and you failed to catch me by just a few minutes at every number you called. If you kept at it so consistently, it must be something important. So I thought I would speak to you before I retire for the day.”

I could then tell him that I had had to go without his comment and had said as much in the copy. “I will try and incorporate your statement now if you can speak to me about it.”

“No,” he said. “Don’t trouble yourself or your editors about it now. Let it go tonight. But I will speak to you tomorrow. And since you wasted all day today trying to reach me, why don’t you come over in the afternoon and I will give you as much time as you like?”

I asked for 60 minutes and got it, too, though he wondered what I wanted to talk to him about for a whole hour or so. But then I didn’t just get a reaction to that event, I got one of the most freewheeling interviews Pawar had ever given until then. He spoke about just about everything – politics, economics, agriculture, liberalisation, globalisation, India’s place in the world, Maharashtra’s place in India etc.

It gave me great insights into not just his mind but how Pawar worked, too – in giving me a generous hour, I had probably encroached upon time he had set aside for his own self. So at the start of the interview he told me, “I hope you don’t mind being interrupted by some phone calls through this interview. I need to speak to some people and if I don’t do this now, it will be too late.”

Soon I realised he was hosting a do for actor Dilip Kumar – the thespian had just been awarded by the Government of India (I do not remember now if that was a Padma award or the Dadasaheb Phalke award). Pawar had decided to felicitate him for the same. “I am throwing a party (as far as I recall it was at the Jade Gardens at Nehru Centre) for Yusufbhai,” he told each guest personally. “Please come. I would like it very much if you do.”

The guest list was impressive, too, and I was quite overawed to realise he knew just about the whole world and his wife in Bombay and, what’s more, spoke to each one personally, as though he/she was an old friend.

His phone calls were done just as I ran out of questions. Seeing the waiting crowds in his anteroom, I realised I had indeed impinged upon his personal time and he might have not had another free hour to make all those phone calls.

My editor was taken aback when I told him the story. “Would not have thought Pawar could be so gracious,” he said.

“What do I do with all this stuff I have now? How do we do justice to it?” I asked.

“Lets run a three part series. Politics in one, business in the other and a third if you have enough quotes left over,” my editor replied. “After all it is not everyday that one gets an hour and everything out of Sharad Pawar.”

Not everyday, true. But it could still happen. That’s why we keep calling Sharad Pawar. But we stopped calling Bal Thackeray long, long ago.

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