If I ever had to write a piece for the Reader’s Digest magazine on the most unforgettable character I had ever met, then Sushil Gupta, a Rotarian, would surely be the one I would write about. He is unforgettable because Sushil was a man of many parts and the more you got to know each one of those parts, the more you loved him and admired him.
I had first met Sushil around the mid-1980s, as a past district governor from Delhi of the then RI district 301. I met him in PRID Sudarshan Agarwal’s office in the Parliament Building in Delhi and Sushil immediately struck me as someone different and special, with his laughter, his ideas and his zest for life. And the forty-odd years, that we spent together as friends, only enhanced my admiration for him.
Sushil in fact, was a man of many, many parts, all packaged beautifully together. For instance, apart from being a religious man, Sushil had as his guru a Pranic healer from Manila who influenced him greatly. He believed in it, and then learnt and practised the art of Pranic healing on his own with a series of mantras and chants and waving of his palms. And, if anyone had a backache or a headache, Sushil would immediately put into practise his Pranic prowess, and then ask, how do you feel? Do you feel better? And, more often than not, the illness seemed to have abated.
Sushil was also a keen and regular golfer, and everyone in the Delhi Golf Club, the big shots and the not so-big ones, all seemed to know him.
Travelling was another of his favourite pastimes and he believed in taking difficult treks in the Himalayas. I re- member a trip he took to the Mansarovar, with Chinese permit, for Tibet travel, with his daughter Gunjan and mine, Ruma, all of them camping in tents beyond the Tibetan borders.
Sushil, of course, had a knack for making friends and the fact that he ran the wonderful Hyatt Regency Hotels in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, enhanced his connectivity manifold. What always amazed me was that he was a business person, not looking for any government connections and concessions, never doing anything less than legal, and yet the entire bureaucracy at Delhi respected him a lot. In recent years, as he built his own 500-room J W Marriott Hotel in Delhi, a top-of the line, six-star facility, Sushil himself worked so hard to sort out problems of getting it ready, of management, of getting the required permits from the various government departments for fire, safety, installing facilities or importing quality food, furniture or security systems, and he would proudly tell me, “Kalyan, I have never ever spent on anything, more than what is legally required.” And Sushil ran his hotels, with the help of his partners and his son Sandip, with the kind of love and care which only a creator can give, and it was no surprise that he was always the preferred host of prime ministers and kings, or received recognition from the government with a Padma Shri Award.
Rotary has always been an organisation he loved and I have never seen many Rotarians with total commitment to the causes they believed in. He took up Rotary’s initiative in water management, controlling India’s myriad droughts or floods through barrages and check dams and raising of groundwater levels where water did not exist or collecting rainwater. He would go to the driest and most arid areas in Rajasthan and give direction to help raise funds for managing and augmenting water resources. Controlling pollution or creating new toilets for the masses, and working with the biggest names in the field, such as Sunita Narayan or Rajendra Singh or Dr Bindeshwar Prasad, or working in Kutch to help build schools and homes after the devastating earthquakes, or dashing off to the coasts in Odisha or Chennai after cyclones and tsunami to start relief work — all these were what he absolutely loved to do. I would often wonder about his many personalities — the outstanding hotelier, the dedicated social worker, the great golfer, the untiring mountain trekker, the dedicated Rotarian, the loving family man and above all, an unforgettable friend.
It was in mid-2015–16 that Sushil, who had served Rotary both as director and as TRF trustee, was urged by Rotarians and friends to offer to serve Rotary not only locally but go global. By then, the new J W Marriott near the Delhi airport was functional, and Sushil had some time on his hands. He convinced his spouse Vinita to continue his Rotary adventure, and the flood of friendly support from the Rotarians persuaded him to put in his bid and lo and behold, on his very first attempt at the top job, he was the unanimous choice of the Nominating Committee for RI President for the year 2020–21, the fourth Indian ever chosen to lead our organisation.
After the statutory wait for three months, and then joined by Vinita, Sushil started going around clubs, and districts meeting people, basking in their joy, planning with past president Raja to select his theme for the year and getting ready for his year on the job.
Sushil was a man of many parts, all packaged beautifully together. Apart from being a religious man, Sushil believed in, learnt and practised Pranic healing.
During all his fairly hectic travels, Sushil started to notice that he was sometimes having difficulties while speaking, specially towards the end of a speech when he would get a bit garbled, and stammer more often, sometimes getting tired too. He started consulting his doctors including his medical friends in Rotary, Dr Subramanian, incoming governor from district 3011. He seemed to be developing some kind of a nervous disorder and the doctors decided that a more detailed and thorough professional investigation was required. Sushil and Vinita then went to Houston, US, for a detailed clinical investigation and Sushil was diagnosed to be afflicted by a rare progressive neurological disease. There is no known cure, though a hereditary origin is reported in about 15 per cent of the cases, but medication and treatment can slow down its progress.
Immediately on his return, Sushil announced with regret that he would be unable to carry on with his responsibilities for Rotary and was therefore resigning from his post as the president nominee of Rotary.
Sushil first stayed at home, and was able to walk around in the initial stages. He then moved around in a wheelchair and finally was confined to bed.
He was fully aware of the illness and its consequences and displayed enormous strength of character, both in accepting it and in dealing with it. His cognitive function, his memory and desire to communicate remained intact for a long time. He continued to communicate through writing and using an iPad and eventually, through eye contact and foot movements, while he and the family fought bravely. The family and the home care attendants provided exemplary medical care and emotional support. Vinita was always by his side 24/7, and sometimes visitors would drop in. But slowly, the visits too slowed down and then, stopped.
Sushil was ever the soldier and Vinita was his Florence Nightingale. And he fought valiantly and never, ever gave up.
So, what does one say about such a man? And his destiny?
Gen Douglas McArthur, the US Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific, said, after World War II was over: ‘Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.’
But Sushil, the Rotary soldier, will never fade away. Because to live in the hearts of those he leaves behind is to live forever.
Sushil Gupta, my friend, Rest in Peace.
The writer is past RI president
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and from Sushil Gupta’s archives.