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Deccan Herald » Panorama » Detailed Story
Simple man with a lofty office

Top politicians like Lal Bahadur Shastri and K Kamaraj were known for their austere personal lives. Former Vice-President B D Jatti belonged to this league and passed on the trait to youngsters in the household, recalls Shekar Jatti, in a 93rd birth anniversary (Sept 10) tribute to his grandfather:

Like all Vice-Presidents, Basappa Danappa Jatti had a dual role to play. Besides functioning as deputy to the President of India, he had to preside over the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha. How could he do that with a sore eye?

That was the only time I remember seeing him really angry. We his grand-children were playing with toy guns, using jowar grains as ammunition. One grain hit the Vice- President near the eye. He told us sternly then how it was essential for him to avoid injuries to be able to carry out his various duties.

At all other times, grandfather was firm without being abrasive. He and grandmother Sangavva Jatti brought up the four of us, comprising myself, my two elder sisters and a cousin, from the time of grandfather’s spell as Governor of Orissa. Just as she would have in her farm, grandmother tended five cows and fed us with their milk daily. She raised her own kitchen garden too.

Our grandparents applied one golden rule in raising us — that we live just as we would as members of a farmer’s household in our native Bijapur, and not as residents of the sprawling official residence of Vice-President of India at No 6, Moulana Azad Road. In fact, grandfather used only two of the 16 to 18 rooms in the building. Two-and-a-half decades down the line, the stark contrast between the lifestyle our grandparents laid down for us and the lifestyles of many present-day politicians’ wards strikes me as very sharp.

Take our schooling, for example. One phone call from anyone in his office could have got us admission in an elite school in Delhi. We were admitted instead in the Delhi Kannada School at Khan Market. Clearly, grandfather did not want us to pick up any notion that we belonged to the privileged class. Our fellow students here were mostly children of Kannadigas working in offices in Delhi.

Grandfather allowed us one privilege though. The four of us rode to school in an Ambassador car and rode right back home, for further tuitions at home. Sure, we received pocket money too like other normal children. Grandfather gave us each a weekly allowance of 50 paise! I was in sixth standard then. No way that my cousins and I would dash into a snack bar for pizzas or burgers. Grandmother packed rotis, sabji and sometimes halva for our lunch.

Visitors from Bijapur could count on grandparents’ hospitality and receive roti and sabji and sometimes stay overnight with us. One frequent visitor would have none of the roti and halva. She would break an egg, swallow the contents, and top it off with a glass of milk from one of grandmother’s cows. That would be Indira Gandhi’s breakfast whenever she turned up in the mornings.

Grandfather’s regard for Indira Gandhi was so deep that he had named one great grandchild after her and another after her son Rajiv. Our family would have had a Sanjay (name of Indira Gandhi’s second son) too, had my second child been a boy.

This was a mild paradox because the Gandhi family spells class but grandfather took care to see that we the grandchildren were uninfected by class consciousness. We could walk into grandfather’s staff members’ houses on the estate, eat, play and mingle with their children. The stream of VIPs into the house even after he retired was routine but thanks to the way our grandparents’ had molded us, we were never tempted to behave like VIP children.

One prominent visitor landed in a ticklish situation because of our ingrained inability to make distinctions among the visitors. Grandfather was at pooja when this visitor arrived at our Bangalore house and who should he encounter but me. He asked to see grandfather. “Please wait here, he will come,” I said. ‘Here’ meant the portico but the visitor showed no annoyance.

When grandfather emerged and found that the visitor was Andhra Chief Minister Janardana Reddy, he apologised to him. “You should know who is who,” grandfather told me and explained the importance of general knowledge. I now read four to five newspapers everyday, just as he did, particularly the editorials.

The stream of visitors did not interfere with his passion for his daily pooja. He made us wear ‘vibhuti’ after the pooja. Even when we moved to Bangalore after his retirement, all the children had to join in bhajan singing in the evening.

Other kind of music, like Boney M and ABBA, as well as Hindi film hits like ‘Aap jaisa koi’ we could listen to in the upstairs room of our Bangalore house, but quietly. Movies were mostly what Doordarshan beamed once or twice a week. Grandfather took us on vacation too, to places like Tirupathi and Rameswaram. Girl friends were out of the question. All but one of the cousins have had arranged marriages and grandfather attended each one of them. I blackmailed him. “If you do not come to my marriage, I will not marry.” He came, despite his poor health, to the wedding at Chikmagalur.

Religious he was but bigot, he was not. Some of us in the family turned into Shirdi Saibaba devotees and he did not demur. He did object, in his typical mild manner, when he learnt that I had smoked a cigarette. It is bad for health, he told me.

Other advice I received from him pertained to my future. “Study law and become a lawyer,” he said once and changed it later to “become a politician.” At his bidding I joined the Youth Congress but that’s as far as I got. I have ended up as a businessman.

I must conclude with a narration that illustrates his conscious distancing from VIP behaviour. I had grown old enough to be playing chauffeur to him in my own Maruti car. When I was driving him back from a function in Bangalore, the car broke down on JC Road. I got out to see what was wrong under the bonnet.

Several minutes later, a large crowd had surrounded me. That was because, grandfather had got out of the car too and stood next to me, unaware that he would attract a crowd because of the lofty office he had occupied not long ago.

(As told to Anil Chintamani)

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