A Touch of Greatness is an engaging account of R.M. Lala’s meetings with luminaries he has known. Profiled here are politicians, social activists, industrialists, religious leaders and artists, whose lives demonstrate ‘what one can live for — and what one can live by’. They include giants like C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, J.R.D. Tata, Morarji Desai and Vinoba Bhave, all of whom played a prominent role in shaping modern India. Also profiled are the Dalai Lama, Azim Premji, Narayana Murthy, Nani Palkhivala and Sam Manekshaw who bring home the power of virtues like compassion, endeavour, intellect and selflessness. At the end is a tribute to a father — the authors own—that speaks to all of us.
The accompanying pen drawings enhance the appeal of these riveting biographical sketches.
‘Lala’s style of writing ... is uncomplicated, almost conversational. It is as if he is sitting across the table telling stories.’ — ‘(R.M. Lala) offers us a sensitive insight into ... distinguished personalities.’ — first City
Editor, publisher and author, Russi M. Lala began his career as a journalist in 1948, at the age of nineteen. Shortly after this, he became an executive in a book publishing house. In 1959 he became the manager of the first Indian book publishing house in London and in 1964 he founded (with Rajmohan Gandhi) the newsweekly Himmat, which he edited for a decade.
He published his first book, The Creation of Wealth: The Tata Story, to critical and commercial acclaim in 1981. This was followed by Encounters with the Eminent (1981); The Heartbeat of a Trust (1984); in Search of Leadership (1986); Beyond the Last Blue Mountain:
A Life of J.R.D. Tata (1992); the Joy of Achievement: Conversations with J.R.D. Tata (1995) and Celebration of the Cells: Letters from a Cancer Survivor (1999). He has also edited, with S.A. Sabavala, a book of J.R.D. Tara’s speeches, Keynote (1986). R.M. Lala’s books have been translated into other languages including Japanese.
He has been director of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust since 1985, and is the co-founder of the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy, and since 1993, its chairman.
If we perceive with an open mind, every human being has some good quality which we can emulate with benefit to ourselves. Over the past five decades, I have had the privilege of meeting or getting to know a number of distinguished men and women. In each, I have found a touch of greatness and this has led me to search for the secret of their distinction in the context of their lives and times.
The political personalities whom I’ve featured I’ve met in the course of my editorship of Himmat (1964-75), which covered some whom I cannot claim to have come close to. Others, I had the good fortune to know well. In writing about men like Rajaji and K.M. Munshi, I feel happy that I can repay the debt of gratitude I owe them for the affection they extended to me.
I have learnt something from each one of those who has featured in this book. Some quality in their lives, or a sentence or two which I have quoted from them, has returned over the years to enrich and heighten my own life or helped me at a crucial moment. It is this wealth which I would like to share with others. For example, when I urged Rajaji, then in his late eighties, with his years as Chief Minister of Madras and Governor-General of India behind him, to write his autobiography, he told me with modesty, ‘When the saints of India have not written their lives, who am I to write mine?’ When MS. Subbulakshmi’s husband, Sadasivam, the most faithful of his disciples, urged him to write about his life, he gave the same reply, but added movingly, ‘Sadasivam, our job is to do our duty and to go.’ En that one sentence Rajaji summed up what he thought was a man’s purpose in life.
When I met Vinoba Bhave at his ashram in Paunar, it was his weekly day of silence. So he wrote out his replies in Hindi on a slate. He scrawled, ‘Purity comes from God.’ Brief but profound.
So often when I hastily rush to judge people, Mother Teresa’s words return to me, ‘If you judge people, you have no time to love them.’
From J.R.D. Tata I learnt how greatness and humility can exist side by side and make an impact on others.
There are moments in a nation’s life when greatness abounds in its leaders and something of that greatness rubs off on people who live in their shadow. India passed through such a phase during her independence struggle and for a while thereafter. It was in these few decades after India’s freedom that I met some historical figures like J ayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Kripalani and Morarji Desai. Some of them lived well into the 1970s and even beyond. Blessed with long lives these giants enriched India. Read together, their lives are witness to an era. For those who have lived through that era, A Touch of Greatness may be a welcome refresher. For those who are younger, perhaps the lives of these unusual men may provide some inspiration.
In preference to cricketers of today, I have selected Vijay Merchant of yesteryear as a representative of a period when cricket was cricket. Till the early 1980s, Vijay Merchant’s record of average Test runs stood next only to Don Bradman’s. His sense of discipline can serve as a model for those who wish to master the game.
Others covered include economist Prof. C.N. Vakil, who trained a generation of top economists; soldier Field-Marshal Sam Manekshaw; jurist Nani Palkhivala; and a rare artiste, M.S. Subbulakshmi. Twenty years ago I covered these lives in my book Encounters with the Eminent. I have retained these profiles and updated the information in most cases.
In the last twenty years, many interesting personalities have come into my life. I was fortunate to meet, and get to know well, Dr. M.S. Swami Nathan, who has moved from the Green Revolution him. Kindled in India to the nutrition security he is committed to now. It was a privilege to spend three days with the Dalai Lama in the hill station of Panchgani in the beautiful surroundings of the MRA Centre, Looking back, I was privileged to be a pupil and a friend of one of the great historians of our time, Ft Henry Heras. So I have included his sketch.
It was H.T. Parekh who shaped two of India’s largest financial institutions—the ICICI and HDFC. We worked in the field of philanthropy and along with others were instrumental in starting the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy. It was my association with philanthropy too which led to Azim Premji calling on me. My biography of J.R.D. brought me close to Narayana Murthy much before he became a well-known name. Both these leading lights of information technology are covered by me not so much because of the wealth or fame they have amassed but because they represent a new and refreshing face of Indian industry. When ostentatious living had become fashionable, these two men arrived on the scene with heir disarming simplicity integrity and sense of mission and purpose. They are role models for young industrialists.
I responded to them so positively because like J.R.D. Tata (they both won -the J.R.D. Tata Corporate Leadership Award) they work primarily not for profit but for the joy of achievement. Both have a vibrant social conscience. Both have reached where they are through different routes. Premji was born of a merchant prince. Narayana Murthy was one of if children of a modestly paid teacher, all of whose children stood first in class.
Narayana Murthy, who still stays in a three -bedroom flat he started his career with, reminds me of J.R.D. Tata in his later years. The house J.R.D. occupied in his younger days was large and sprawling. While I was working on my biography of J.R.D., for years he always received me in a small room with two chairs and a sofa, two telephones, a bookshelf and a desk. I thought this was his study. I later realized that it was also his bedroom and what appeared to be the sofa was pulled Out when he wanted to rest. I asked him, ‘Sir, no one in your position would spend his time in a room as small as this.’ Why do 1 need anything bigger?’ he replied, ‘It suffices me.’ How often when 1 am tempted to acquire material things which I don’t really need, these lines come back: ‘It suffices me.
These personalities demonstrate what one can live for—and what one can live by.
inadequate as my portrayals may be, I hope readers will appreciate meeting the people profiled in this book, as I have appreciated meeting all of them in person.
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