Fact: I Was Inside Pramod Mahajan's Residence
Mayank Austen Soofi
I have been to the 7, Safdarjang Road bungalow - the former official residence of the Mahajans. I talked to Pramod Mahajan there. I saw Atal Behari Vajpayee sitting in its lush lawns. I overheard Jaswant Singh under the shelter of one of its ancient trees. I was inside its kitchen too. I walked through its inner corridors. I stood by in the living room that has a large glass wall overlooking the garden outside. I even noticed the journals lying on the coffee table.
It was still the early days of the Saffron Camelot. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the former resident of 7, Safdarjang, had recently shifted to 7, Racecourse Road after taking over as Prime Minister. India, after exploding the nuclear bombs, was flushed with manly pride. Pakistani troops were only begining to eye the Tiger Hill in Kargil. Godhra was still not a destination in the nation's political map. Narendra Modi was merely one of the several minor BJP politicians. Tehelka hadn't yet tainted the party's we-are-different innocence. Mr. Vajpayee, through his sheer oratorical skills, had stirred drunkard optimism in the country after years of Congress corruption. It also happened to be a good post-monsoon season. India was hoping again.
But this writer was not. I was unhappily employed as a Management Trainee in the Radisson Hotel. The Carlson group property stood out in its dull sand-stone dryness not far from New Delhi's international airport. Those were very disappointing days for me.
After wasting three fruitless years in pursuing a course in Hotel Management, I realized to my utter astonishment that nobody read books in the hotels. Besides, I made a particularly incompetent hotelier: I was so bad at serving rice with spoon-and-fork and so clumsy in peeling sacks of onions that it would have been difficult for me to get a job in any hotel, forget the 5-star Radisson, if my father hadn't known somebody whose daughter was an Income Tax Commissioner in Delhi and whose husband was personally acquainted with Pramod Mahajan.
The late Mr. Mahajan happened to be an intimate of Radisson's General Manager Sanjeev Tyagi and both these gentleman were very cozy with Mr. Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee's son-in-law, who himself had a stake in hospitality industry, being the owner of a 5-star property in Manali. I was a beneficiary of this cozy nexus of some of India's most powerful people of the time.
One not-so-fine evening, after a continuous, back-breaking duty of 14 hours, we trainees were shoved into the hotel van which would take us to serve in the 'PM party'. It was Vajpayee's granddaughter Neha's birthday and Mr. Mahajan had decided to celebrate it with style in his bungalow. Radisson was organizing the party, free of cost. I remember delicately balancing a huge chocolate cake on my lap during the journey to 7, Safdarjang Road in New Delhi's Chankayapuri enclave.
We were immediately escorted to the kitchen in the back of the sprawling house. I was amazed. It was spacious but considering it used to be Vajpayee's rasoi not many months back, it appeared quite small. And there was no pantry to be seen, at least from naked eyes.
We were a group of around 12 trainees and some of us remained in the kitchen cribbing about horrid working conditions, while the remaining group went outside to smoke. Soon a fat, pleasant-looking lady dressed in a simple blue-colored salwaar kameez, with a round face and rounder glasses, entered the kitchen, overheard the complaints, and when we noticed her standing, she smiled and shook our hands. The lady confessed that she too was from a 'hotel background' and then we all cribbed about the injustice of unreasonable working hours. She was polite, had a mellow tone and just when her extreme gentleness made us feel comradely towards her, she excused herself.
It was later, a few months after while flipping through a magazine, I realized her identity. She was Namita Bhattacharya - Vajpayee's daughter. Officially she is his adopted daughter, but the structure of her lips and eyes shared a remarkable similarity with that of Mr. Vajpayee - the eternal bachelor.
It has been more than 5 years and memory has started being truant so it is difficult to remember exactly why was I walking through the house but I did recall standing in the living room for a while. The sofas were soft, comfortable and easy to the eye. They inclined in a lazy angle against the wall. The entire room was bathed in a golden hue which softened the edges of every object in sight - table lamp, ash-trays, picture frames. The dark-brown carpet had a pearl-shaped pattern on its center. There was a huge glass screen facing the sofa where one could look out into the garden.
I glanced around to find what sort of books did Pramod Mahajan read but could not see any bookshelf. On the glass-top of the coffee-colored coffee-table, there was a stack of National Geographic (a month-old issue, I still remember), Readers' Digest, Time, Newsweek and India Today magazines, but not Outlook.
Mr. Mahajan's reading habits failed to impress me.
I was soon called back to the kitchen to be handed a heavy platter with tiny glasses of cold drinks. A house servant led me outside into the garden from where I could see the inside of the living room I was standing in a few minutes back. Just adjacent to the garden was a long out-house that ran across its length.
A door was opened and I was pushed inside. It was a smartly done mini-auditorium. Beautiful, well-groomed, rich-looking, anti-septic children, who seemed as if they had emerged out of their mothers' wombs carrying credit cards in their little pink palms, were dressed in beautiful, dainty frocks. I served Coca Cola, Fanta and Limca to these little wonders. Neha, the prime-ministerial granddaughter, was very sweet and when I asked her 'will you like to have a cold drink?", she smiled shyly and said 'thank you' after helping herself.
By this time I was feeling quite dizzy to find myself in the middle of power and my tiredness and bad temper had fizzled out. I was ready to stand up to the occasion.
It was a private celebration but the birthday-baby happened to be the grand-daughter of India's Prime Minister. All the high-and-mighties of the country were to be expected. Our Food & Beverage Manager warned us to be smart and alert, declaring that 'a good show here can land the hotel with great contracts'.
Small, clean, hygienic chaat stalls were built on one row of a lawn that faced the front of the bungalow. Some of us were stationed in these stalls and were to serve Tikiyas, Aloo-Kachoris, Jalebis, Samosas and Golgappas. The ambience was done in the charming style of a Chandni Chowk evening. I was not allotted any stall. Instead I was to move around and serve.....what else but cold drinks.
Little Neha's little friends were enjoying a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon in the auditorium. The bigger guests were yet to trickle in, but Mr. Mahajan, dressed in a gold-colored silk kurta pajama, was standing in a corner of the lawn with two grimy, white-kurta-pajama clad men flanking his either side. The 'body guards' appeared dangerous and risky, like small-time power brokers from Eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.
Feeling 'empowered', I walked up to them with my humble platter and very graciously said, 'Will you like to have a cold drink, Sir?" Mr. Mahajan without looking at me shook his head and continued his conversation with the two fat companions. I walked around the garden and after making a one full turning, I languidly walked back to Mr. Mahajan and asked in the same mechanical tone, ''Will you like to have a cold drink, Sir?"
Mr. Mahajan's men answered for him while he looked away. I took a round again. There were no other guests. My platter was still unmolested and virgin. I returned to the kitchen. Quickly gulping down few glasses of Fanta, and consequently refilling the glasses, I went back to the scene of action.
There was Mr. Mahajan, still standing in the same corner, still between those two bouncers. I came to him, yet again, and asked, ''Will you like to have a cold drink, Sir?"
Mr. Mahajan looked irritatingly at me, smiled in a way that suggested what a foolish guy I was. He then shook his head and his two companions started laughing. It appeared that in their long eventful political career, none of these three gentlemen had seen a funnier person than this stupid steward, looking so uncomfortable in white shirt, black trousers, and black bowtie.
I scrounged back trying to escape from my shame and embarrassment. Nothing else could explain my behavior except that I was really stupid at the time.
The evening bloomed. It was drizzling but the shower was weak enough not to perturb the gracious crowd of elegantly-dressed guests. The grave-looking Jaswant Singh, the Foreign Minister, was hoarsely conversing with some equally serious gentleman. Ladies draped in beautiful sarees were trying different chaat stalls. When I saw hot, crisp, gold-colored Jalebis dripping off the sugar syrup as they were taken out freshly-fried from the karahi, I began licking my lips like a starving dog gone mad. Since the weather was rainy, it became more difficult to restrain myself from attempting to snatch away the plates of crackling Aloo Tikkis, immersed in a pool of Imli-ki-chutney and Dahi, that the VIP guests were eating with so much relish.
Unable to resist the temptation, I rushed back into the kitchen and hogged down whatever was available there.
I was still hungry.
Once back in the party lawn, I saw a sight that I was not prepared for.
Atal Behari Vajpayee was sitting in an uncomfortable cane chair. People had gathered around him and there were hushed whispers to be heard now and then. An eerie silence had fallen on account of the presence of so great a personality.
Mr. Vajpayee was helping himself to Aloo-Tamatar and Kachoris. There was a well-fed man with a ferocious moustache (I learnt later in an India Today article that he was Vajpayee's 'Man-Friday') who was shaking his head smilingly while Mr. Vajpayee looked a bit guilty when he noticed this rhythmic shaking-of-head. Mr. Vajpayee apparently had finished the kachoris that were served to him and desired more. Perhaps he was not permitted so for health reasons and hence this Mr. Man Friday and his silent shake: a gentle request to the Prime Minister not to be greedy.
Meanwhile, the aroma of the Aloo-Tamatar gravy invaded my senses and I was yearning for a serving myself. It was only the very-unreal reality that I was standing opposite India's Prime Minister which made me reluctant to retire back to the kitchen for more feeding.
I decided to suck up to the precious moment.
So, this was the man who must have ordered the nukes to go off in Pokhran. And now I was standing near him. Oh God! There was an axe lying undisturbed and uncared for in a hedge just by Vajpayee's side and, oh God, I could not spot any safari-suited SPG personal at guard. A thought-wave flashed through my brain: If I quickly jumped for the axe and hit Vajpayee at the back of his head before anybody could make any sense, I would reserve my place in the history of Modern India. Oh God!
While struggling with such impure thoughts, I was suddenly nudged by a fellow trainee to move around with the platter. My date with history was lost.
The cake was brought along in the middle of the lawn in a sleek silver-colored trolley. Vajpayee stood up. Everyone surrounded the trolley. Vajpayee helped a shy-looking Neha with the cake-cutting ceremony. Clapping followed. A fire show was the next item to be displayed. Great splattering noises disturbed the cool, relaxed air as the rockets dissolved with a whoosh into hundreds of tiny stars in the dark rainy sky. I half-feared that perhaps Vajpayee would be killed in a hidden bomb.
Elaborate swings and wheels were ordered by Mr. Mahajan and placed at strategic locations all across the lawn. The children were having their joy rides in spite of the continuous drizzle. Time washed along.
I no longer recall how it came to pass but I saw Mr. Vajpayee standing alone in the lawn not long after. Even his Mr. Man Friday was not to be seen. A cluster of Very Important Persons - ministers, industrialists, bureaucrats, editors - had formed a circle around him. It was amusing; as if they all were watching a new species of Chimpanzee freshly gifted by the President of Peru to the people of India.
While I was still coming to terms with the fact that I was watching India's Prime Minister in flesh and blood, a kind-looking SPG man in a light brown safari suit appeared and asked me to serve a cold drink to the Prime Minister. He had a faint smile on his face. In spite of being the chosen one, I was not feeling privileged for being handpicked as the prime ministerial steward. I harbored no fancies about my then-personality: As a nervous-looking young boy, I was thin, my shoulders drooped to a sad V-shape, and I had a drought-stricken face. My person was such that I made for an attractive non-assassin type of picture for the security-conscious SPG commandos.
And so here I was breaching the circumference of the coveted circle and walking right in front of the Indian Prime Minister.
He looked exactly as he appeared in television and magazines. His hairs were silver-white. His cheeks were swollen. His face was puffed up. His eyes were sleepy.
Mr. Vajpayee looked towards me. Yes, the Prime Minister of India looked at me!
'Will you like to have Coke, Sir? I said in my best fashion possible.
No answer. He stared at me.
'Will you like to have Coke, Sir? I repeated.
Still no reply. He kept on staring at me, looking dazed, confused and puzzled.
'Sir, Coke lenge?' I finally blabbered in Hindi.
He suddenly became conscious, threw an alert look on his left and right, and then gently shook his head. The SPG fellow took me by shoulders and got me out of the power circle.
It had started raining hard by the time we packed up and were preparing to leave 7, Safdarjang. I had no sixth sense to inform me in the year 1998 that the house would be visited by so sensational a scandal in 2006. Now, while watching the television coverage of Rahul Mahajan's escapades, it feels faintly thrilling to realize that I was once in the same living room where he later snorted with his friends; where the late Mr. Mahajan's secretary - Vivek Moitra - spent the last moments of his life.
During that birthday get-together, I was able to recognize only Mr. Pramod Mahajan in the Mahajan family. Did I walk past by his son Rahul? Was Pravin Mahajan, who killed Pramod, his own brother, present? Did I serve a drink to him? I do not know. I can not say. But yes, I was there.
Fact: I Was Inside Pramod Mahajan's Residence
- » Published on June 09, 2006
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