Thursday 21 March 2019

How Manohar Parrikar became my friend over chats about a moped, red shirt & green tea

Reporter Rohini Swamy first met Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar, who passed away Sunday, at Panaji in 1999, when the Lok Sabha elections were underway. 

Chief minister Manohar “Bhai” Parrikar, who passed away Sunday, was a household name in Goa, a real “aam aadmi” politician.

Often, you would be discussing his politics and governance over tea and Goan pav bhaji at a restaurant, only to find him sitting at the next table, enjoying the chai and charcha (tea and discussion).

And if he met you once, he never forgot you.

On the streets of Panaji
This reporter first met him at Panaji in 1999. The Lok Sabha elections were underway and this reporter, fresh into adulthood and armed with her voter ID and first-ever driver’s licence, was set to ride her moped to cast her vote for the very first time.

One day, Parrikar, who was actively campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the time, stopped at a grocer’s in Dona Paula for a cold drink, just as I came in to purchase some household items.

While waiting at the counter, he started chatting with me in his typical composed manner.

“Are you going to be voting this time?” he asked. I nodded, telling him it would be my first time and admitting that I was confused about my choice.

“Don’t worry,” he replied.

“It’s easy. Just cast your vote, but don’t forget to think it through, as the person you vote for will change your life and make a difference,” he said.

He had seen me park my moped by the shop, because he pointed towards it and asked, “Do you have a licence for that?

“You are young now, don’t speed,” he added, smiling, before getting on a white Kinetic Honda and setting off, followed by a few BJP workers. Just as he was leaving, the local poder (breadman), passing by on a bicycle, waved at Parrikar. They exchanged pleasantries before parting ways.

File image of Manohar Parrikar | Praveen Jain/ThePrint
That image of Parrikar, sitting astride a two-wheeler in his signature half-sleeved shirt and open sandals, was a common sight in Panaji and Mapusa during his chief ministerial days.

During polling campaigns, he would ride pillion as party candidates rode across town, canvassing for support.

‘Moped girl’
The next meeting came a couple of years later, when this reporter started training as a cub with a local Goan English daily called The Navhind Times.

One day, the then chief reporter, Umesh Mhambre, suggested a joint assignment covering a midnight session of the Goa assembly. Parrikar was chief minister at the time.

After the session, just as we were leaving the assembly building, we saw Parrikar approach us. “I remember you,” he said, looking at me. “You are from Dona Paula, right?

“You have become a journalist? You have more responsibility than me now,” he added, laughing.

That day, he once again saw me mount my moped and, from then on, I became “moped girl” for him.

In the years to come, each time I visited Goa, we would meet for a short while because Parrikar wanted a youngster’s vision for how the state should be developed.

A leader of the people
Parrikar was a leader known for compassion. A young woman sexually harassed by a government official, discouraged by her family from filing a police complaint, once approached the CM for help.

She stood outside his official residence, Mahalakshmi, at Altinho in Panaji and waited for an appointment. When she was allowed to meet the CM, she found herself in a room full of people, unable to narrate her ordeal.

Quick to gauge the hesitation, Parrikar asked the room to be cleared of the public, letting just two of his staff members stay back, and asked her what the issue was.

When she revealed the incident, he stood up and said, “Do not worry. I will not let a beast remain in Goa. You do not need to go to police. I will ensure that he does not look at or touch a woman like this ever in his life.”

In a matter of days, the official was arrested.

A gift from his deeply-missed wife
In 2011, during a visit back home to Goa, we met near the BJP office. He was wearing a red shirt and the colour gave him a flushed appearance, which this reporter mistook for an allergy. I asked him if he was well.

“It’s the shirt that makes me look red,” he replied.

“This is one of my favourite shirts. I am very attached to it as my late wife bought it for me. I wear it almost every alternate day and it shows my true Goan blood,” he added.
Parrikar lost his wife Medha to cancer in 2000.

Years later, when he had assumed charge as defence minister and overseen India’s post-Uri-attack surgical strikes of September 2016, we chanced upon each other at Aero India. “Koshem Asa (how are you in Konkani)?” he said, walking up to me after spotting me from a distance. Parrikar spoke in Konkani every time we met. It was his way of keeping our Goan connection alive.

He invited me to his official residence for a chat, and began talking about how the political scenario in Goa had changed. However, the reporter in me was curious to know about the surgical strikes and he didn’t shy away from the query.

“It has taken me a long time to learn the ropes,” he said. “I know I will receive flak for everything I do. But as the Raksha Mantri, I will not allow a man with an AK-47 to walk onto our soil and cause bloodshed. We don’t want war, but if the enemy tries to incite one, we will tear into them, mercilessly,” he added.

We met again as he took oath as the CM for the fourth time. It was the last time I saw him in fine health.

“Why did you leave Delhi and come back to Goa?” I asked him. “I love my Xitt Kodi (fish curry rice) and nobody knows how to make it well there,” he added. “Don’t you miss it too?” he asked with a smile.

When tea arrived, he promptly took out a small bag of green tea from the pocket of his bush shirt and placed it in the cup of hot water kept in front of him.

“I carry these bags in my pocket these days,” he said.

“I cannot be having tea all the time. I don’t like the taste, but too much tea acidity. I should be healthy to be a CM, right?” he added.

Losing a friend
When a frail Parrikar, who had undergone several rounds of therapy by then, climbed the steps to inaugurate the Atal setu in Goa this January, the people who knew him recognised the familiar glint of confidence in his eyes.

He proved them right too when he asked the cheering crowd, “How’s the josh (spirit)?”

Clearly, it was his josh that always kept his spirits high. With his passing away, Goa has lost its “bhai” and I have lost a good friend.

(Source: The Print)

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