“You are a puritan: you neither drink nor womanise. Such men are dangerous.” Gales of laughter ensued when the late writer Khushwant Singh observed thus in his characteristic irreverent humour to Lal Krishna Advani.
It was difficult not to give in to the infectious nature of Singh’s banter as it was narrated to me in 2005, by the venerable subject himself, at his sprawling Lutyens bungalow in Delhi. The idea behind the rendezvous with the Indian politician and senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party was to portray the man, whose middle name was controversy at the time, for The Telegraph’s coffee table magazine. Advani had then just ‘discovered’ Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Pakistan – empathising publicly in his birthplace, Karachi, with the very personality in whose murder plot Advani had been named as co-conspirator decades ago. That overt avowal of his led to Advani’s subsequent resignation from the BJP as its president.
Even at the age of 86 today, he continues to reap his fair share of opprobrium. He had till very recently carped about Narendra Modi’s inimitable position in the party and country.
But it remains an irrefutable fact that the former deputy Prime Minister of the country had charted his party’s growth in the late ’80s and ’90s.
The first surprise that was sprung on me, in the course of our conversations, on a relaxed morning as Advani sipped on tea at his tastefully decorated Prithviraj Road residence was that he was awaiting a guest for lunch. A politician of course, I thought to myself. In the next instant I was informed by the 78-year-old man in the customary spotless white kurta and dhoti, it was actor Shreyas Talpade (of Iqbal fame). To place it in context, the film Iqbal had just been released to rave reviews.
“It is a beautiful movie. The filmmaker had the guts to make it without a hero or a heroine and the songs are few and far in between. Yet it touches you with the tale of a deaf and dumb boy and his aspirations,” commented Advani. It transpired that he was a film critic in yesteryears. It had been a while – a long while really – since the days when he used to review films for the Organiser in the 1960s. The Organiser was the weekly magazine of the right-wing charitable and Hindu nationalist non-governmental organization – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“One day the editor told me that he was not too happy with the fact that the paper was completely political and he wanted me to try writing a column on films,” said Advani.
Those were the days when he had covered the first international film festival screened in Delhi. His review of a Polish film ‘Kanal’ held him in good stead later when he met Polish diplomats during his stint as Information & Broadcasting minister in ’77. “They were so surprised that I knew about one of their most critically acclaimed movies back home in Poland,” reflected Advani with a smile.
“I have always loved watching movies since I was in school. For a long period, perhaps from ’42 to ’57, I didn’t see a single film. In ’57, I went to Bombay and stayed with my maternal uncle who used to take me for films when I was a boy. He wanted to take me out like before,” recounted the 78-year-old.
The next morning Advani picked up a newspaper that carried a news item saying, ‘At the Strand Cinema here, a spectator died of shock after seeing the film, the House of Wax’. It pricked his curiosity. “They gave out red and blue spectacles for the 3D horror film which was my first film in years.” Since then he has not reigned in his passion for movies.
During his initial days in the Parliament, he occasionally went out for a film or two with friend and fellow politician Atal Behari Vajpayee. “We used to go to ordinary theatres. Except for Regal and the CP theatres, the rest were commonplace enough. Even Golcha in Daryaganj was considered to be elite,” narrated Advani.
The duo had an arrangement of sorts. Advani would go buy the tickets, because of the two, Vajpayee was the famous face. As he warmed up to the topic, Advani related an incident from ’58. “The party office of Jana Sangh used to be at Ajmeri Gate. In ’58 the Delhi Corporation was formed. One of our members died and there was a bye-election in Naya Bazaar. Both Atalji and myself worked very hard for that bye-election to win it,” he paused. “But we lost. We were very depressed.”
Then Vajpayee, with whom Advani would enjoy sessions of eating chaat near Regal, suggested they watch a film. They went to Paharganj and watched a film in Imperial. Recounted Advani: “What is really significant is the film we saw, ‘Phir Subah Hogi’.”
Advani’s personality at home could not have been more disparate than the one he projects in the public eye. The vegetarian, who loves his glass of milk and bowl of fruits at breakfast, is a family man who enjoys playing Holi at home and watches movies on DVD till midnight. And, an indulgent father. “I love listening to my daughter. She is as good a conversationalist as her mother. While my son and I are equally boring,” he admitted with a rueful expression.
Every afternoon Advani would return home for lunch with wife Kamla, daughter Pratibha, son Jayant and daughter-in-law Geetika, even when the Parliament used to be in session. “Otherwise, my wife Kamla threatens to reach wherever I am,” he said. Mrs Advani, seated nearby, smiled and remarked, “I am tough with him.” You could see proof of that in a photo frame on the mantle shelf. Mrs Advani’s favourite still photograph of them revealed a visibly antagonized wife glaring at her husband who was cowering into his plate of food.
“After being appointed deputy Prime Minister, the scribes wanted to know my reaction. I told them that I might be deputy PM in the government, but at home, I am deputy Home Minister,” he laughed.
Mr and Mrs Advani love a banter. For instance, as Advani talked about their marriage which was arranged by a cousin sister, he said: “When I met Kamla, I was wearing trousers. After our wedding, we went out on the first day and I put on my kurta and dhoti. She was shocked and said, ‘Mujhe pata hota to main shaadi nahi karti‘.” While Mrs Advani butted in, asking him not to exaggerate, Advani playfully added, “I am not joking, just reporting.”
If he professed to enjoy his walks in the lawns of his Prithviraj Road residence, his previous Pandara Park house was his lucky mascot. “In 1970 after I became an MP, I was allotted C1/6 in Pandara Park,” he said. It, the leader likes to think, brought about a change in his life. “When Chandrashekhar became the PM, Rajiv Gandhi was leader of the opposition. Subsequently the Congress supported Chandrashekhar and the Speaker ruled that Rajiv could no longer be leader of opposition. And even though Congress was a bigger party than ours, I became leader of the opposition,” he said.
He got a call from Gandhi who wanted him to shift to 10, Janpath. “I had not left it even as a minister in Morarji Desai’s government. I stuck on to it. Otherwise I would have lived at 10 Janpath,” he laughed. But gradually his security grew, the threats grew. The neighbours were ill at ease. Finally in 2002, the Advanis moved bag and baggage to 36, Prithviraj Road.
Advani is a bibliophile. I, for one, believed him. Some 10,000 books were stacked neatly into the cabinets in his library. He loves reading 2-3 to three books at the same time, something that I connect with as a devourer of books. At the moment, he was reading ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts, Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and ‘Islam Under Seige’ by Akbar Ali. His recent reads at that time — ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ and ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ by Mitch Albom — had been so fascinating that he had sent copies to assassinated Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto (Bhutto would send him books too – once she sent him a book that caught her fancy while browsing through a London bookshop).
L K Advani’s reading habit was strengthened during college. “It was the year of the Quit India Movement, 1942, and college was closed for quite some time. Thereafter I used to be in the library reading up by Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas…” he explained.
The same year he joined the RSS. The RSS chief in Sindh used to be Rajpal Puri. “When I first met him, he asked me if I was fond of books. He gave me Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. If I were to identify a book that have influenced me, it would have to be Carnegie. At the age of 14, the things I read in it became part of my nature. But now if I were to read the same book, it would seem very trite,” he said.
The most important influence in Advani’s life has undoubtedly been Swami Ranganathananda who was president of Ramkrishna Mission in Karachi from 1942-’48. He met him during the last four years he stayed in Karachi, when he frequented Ramkrishna Mission, listening to lectures from the Bhagavad Gita every weekend.
The last time he met Ranganathananda was in 2003 was when he had become All-India President of the Mission at Belur Math, Kolkata. The swami was 96 years old, in a wheelchair. “We started reminiscing about Karachi. He asked me if I had read Jinnah’s speech of 1947. I replied in the positive. He went on to call it an exposition of secularism,” he said and after a pause added: “It was this that has created so much furore,” referring to the controversy which had cropped up following his visit to Pakistan.
Memories from his first 20 years in Karachi are very close to the man’s heart. Born in 1927 in Shikharpur in Karachi to Kishichand D Advani, he was the only son and hence pampered by the family members. “I grew up seeing my name on the marble plate outside our house which bore the name ‘Lal Cottage’ after me,” reminisced Advani.
The subject of his recent visit to Karachi cropped up naturally in our chat. “On both occasions that I have visited Karachi in the last 55 years, I have been particular to visit my school — St Patrick’s High School,” said the Sindhi, bringing out an album gifted to him by General Pervez Musharraf, encased in a velvety green box. It had pictures of the new school building, the school as it was built before in a charming colonial style and the date, May 12, 1936, when Advani was admitted to St Patrick’s.
In between, he flicked out his smartphone, a Triola, to check his appointments. Remember the time when computers came for the first and Advani was among the only two politicians to sit patiently in Parliament and update himself? He said dismissively however: “No I am not techno savvy. My daughter is much more updated. In 1985 I saw someone using a digital diary. I took it and asked him how to operate it. Immediately after, I procured a Casio digital diary. Now I use a Triola.”
Once when he was in Bombay for a Lok Sabha session, in 1989, a front page photo appeared in one of the dailies that showed Advani looking at his digital diary. The caption read, ‘Advaniji is this swadeshi?’ Pat followed the reaction to that from Advani: “Those who think that swadeshi means no technology, no advances, they have a very stunted notion.”
Somewhere behind the shrewd ‘Iron Man’ image of the politician is the fact that the man started out as a simple RSS organizer. Never did the author of ‘A Prisoner’s Scrapbook’ (a diary recording his prison days in 1975) dream that he would one day become a Home Minister or a Deputy Prime Minister. But life has its way of landing pleasant surprises and Advani, at least at that point of time, nursed no complains.